December 24-31, 1862: Winter

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness. It is part of her extensive seasonal imagery, which we will explore through her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry. This is also the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness, and also of the holidays of lights— Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Diwali—with their candles, oil lamps, evergreens and messages of peace despite contemporary contamination by consumerism. It was heartening to hear several stories in the media calling for “giftless” holidays or giving the gift of presence and intimacy or homemade gifts. It’s a good time to think of renewing our commitments to making and nourishing connections and building bridges not walls.

Dickinson calls winter the “Finland of the Year” (J1696), and it is part of her extensive seasonal imagery. As we will see in our explorations of her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry, winter signals cold, deprivation, isolation and death. But it also suggests purity through the important images of whiteness, clarity, strength, independence and perseverance. As critic L. Edwin Folsom commented,

Winter, for Emily Dickinson, was a primary source of her realism.

Winter is also the time in which we lay up the seeds and resources for next year’s resurgence. For those of us in the north, it signals the end of the year and also the return of the light after the Winter Solstice. Thus, it is fitting that this is the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

“Strong and Healthy as a Northern Breeze”

Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1

Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.

“Public attention has been turned from the auxiliary situation for some days by an attempt of the majority of the Senate to force a reconstruction of the cabinet for the sake of dropping out Mr. Seward, which was temporarily successful, but terminated in the return of the secretaries to their previous positions. The first shock of the Fredericksburg disaster [the battle fought Dec 11-15] has been overcome, and since it is seen that the losses were less than at first supposed, that the army is not demoralized by the failure, and since Gen. Burnside assumes the whole responsibility of the experiment, hope begins to be entertained that the winter campaign in Virginia has not been terminated by it, and that some means of reaching Richmond may be discovered more hopeful than dashing our gallant army in places against impregnable fortifications.

Success of Physical Culture at Amherst College, page 2
“We are glad to receive from time to time favorable accounts of the working of the gymnastic system which has been adopted by the trustees of Amherst College. During the term, and indeed during the year, the health of the students has been remarkably uniform. Not a single case of fever has occurred in college during the year. Of 178 students who were present during the fall term, only five were at any time on the sick list for more than two days.”

Late from China and Japan: Russia sending troops to China—The Revolution in Japan, page 5
“It was rumored that a large body of Russian troops were coming from the Amoor to aid the Chinese government in the recapture of Ningpoo, and to put down the rebellion. James’ Herald of November says the revolution in Japan is complete. The tycoon [“taikun” or great commander] has been stripped of nearly all his special privileges.”

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“Of the remaining poems of [Bayard Taylor’s new volume], “Passing the Sirens” is the best. It is as strong and healthy as a northern breeze, and too full of life and power to be anything less than an offspring, most classically disguised, of personal experience. We trust the volume may find many appreciative readers, and that abundant room may be made for the author in the high place which belongs to him as an American poet.”

Original Poetry: Dying for Love, [by William Walsh (1662-1708) English poet and friend of Alexander Pope] page 7

William Walsh,
Atlantic Monthly,
December 1862

The Fossil Man, page 670 [by C. L. Brace (1826-1890), an American social reformer]
“What a mysterious and subtile pleasure there is in groping back through the early twilight of human history! The mind thirsts and longs so to know the Beginning: who and what manner of men those were who laid the first foundations of all that is now upon the earth: of what intellectual power, of what degree of civilization, of what race and country. We wonder how the fathers of mankind lived, what habitations they dwelt in, what instruments or tools they employed, what crops they tilled, what garments they wore. We catch eagerly at any traces that may remain of their faiths and beliefs and superstitions; and we fancy, as we gain a clearer insight into them, that we are approaching more nearly to the mysterious Source of all life in the soul.”

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Editor’s Easy Chair, page 134

"Titania and Bottom," 1790, artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)

“The letter of Garibaldi to the British nation contrasts strangely in the purity of its appeal to the loftiest principle with the apparent character and conduct of the people to whom it is addressed. Yet the contrast is between the heroic faith of Garibaldi and the hesitating, treacherous timidity of the British Government, and not between the instinct of the Italian fils du people and that of the people of England. When you hear the high appeal, breathed in passionate music, it is impossible not to think of Titania and Bottom [from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV.1. An angry King Oberon casts a spell on Queen Titania, so that she falls madly in love with Bottom, a weaver who has been given the head of an ass.] When you turn from English history, or the London newspaper of today, to listen to that clear Southern voice intoning the principles and ideas which it is the glory of men to have uttered centuries ago, it is almost if you have heard that voice itself out of history, vague, remote, illusive.”

“Better than a Summer”

“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883
“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883

The last week in December was likely a cold and perhaps dreary time in the Dickinson household. The earliest New England Puritans were not keen on Christmas, which they claimed had no scriptural foundation and was celebrated in Old England by carnival-like activities they found reprehensible. They outlawed Christmas, but by the mid-eighteenth century, it had become a popular holiday in the US embraced by Congregational Churches as a time for formal observance. The December 27, 1862 issue of the Republican reported:

Here at home we see the usual demonstrations on the part of the whole people for a spirited and bona fide celebration of the holiday rites,

but we have no idea how the family of the Homestead spent the holiday, if at all.

Dickinson’s letters from this time indicate that she was preoccupied with Samuel Bowles’s return from Europe in mid-November, and her imagery in those letters sheds light on her broader attitude towards winter. After his return, Bowles visited the Homestead, but Dickinson refused to come down and see him, and sent this note instead:

Dear friend
I cannot see you. You will not less believe me. That you return to us alive, is better than a Summer. And more to hear your voice below, than News of any Bird.
      Emily. (L276)

In a longer letter sent at the same time, Dickinson explained that,

Because I did not see you, Vinnie and Austin, upbraided me – They did not know I gave my part that they might have the more.

The rest of the letter is elliptical and ends on a note of shared suffering and renunciation with these two lines:

Let others – show this Surry's Grace -

Myself – assist his Cross. (L277)

Dickinson’s description of Bowles’s safe return as “better than a Summer” places it within her seasonal symbolism where she measures it against her favorite season of the fullest sun, light, warmth, life, even eternity. Evoking related symbolism in other letters, Dickinson associates winter with death, as in this (melo)dramatic outburst to the Hollands in November 1858:

I can't stay any longer in a world of death. Austin is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week – our man, Dick, lost a little girl through the scarlet fever. I thought perhaps that you were dead, and not knowing the sexton's address, interrogate the daisies. Ah! dainty – dainty Death! Ah! democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden, – then deep to his bosom calling the serf's child!

Say, is he everywhere? Where shall I hide my things? Who is alive? The woods are dead. Is Mrs. H. alive? Annie and Katie – are they below, or received to nowhere? (L195)

Later in her life, Dickinson will reverse this symbolism, suggesting that it is death that brings winter no matter what season it is, as in this description of her mother’s death from 1882:

She slipped from our fingers like a flake, and is now part of the drift called “the infinite.” (L785)

In her classic study of Dickinson’s imagery, Rebecca Patterson saved the last chapter for an explication of the symbolism of “The Cardinal Points,” which Barton Levi St. Armand expanded into what he calls “Dickinson’s mystic day.” Patterson argues that Dickinson learned the power of symbolism from Emerson, who asked in his great essay Nature (1836)

is there no intent of an analogy between man’s life and the seasons? And do the seasons gain no grandeur or pathos from that analogy?

Patterson finds that Dickinson

was in fact a naïve symbolist who … used this symbolism like a second language, or a species of shorthand

but often diverged from Emerson’s ideas. For her, “North” and “northern” and its equivalents like “Arctic” and “Polar” are associated with night, specifically midnight, winter and elements like sleet, snow, frost, glaciers, freezing, icicles, darkness, blindness, death, and the color white

as an arbitrary (cultural) identification of chastity or virginity.

As we discussed in our earlier post on White, these cultural associations are hardly “arbitrary” at all.

In many symbol systems, including Dickinson’s, the north and winter have some positive attributes and are associated with masculinity, maturation, power, hardihood, independence, female virtue, and faithfulness. Patterson suspects Dickinson absorbed these ideas from the writings of John Ruskin, a prominent English art critic, which, in a letter from April of this year, she told Higginson she was reading.

Amherst in Winter (no date)
Amherst in Winter (no date)

In several of his works, Ruskin praises northern superiority, which flourishes in the cold and, like the hemlock trees surrounding the Homestead, is strengthened by the deprivations of winter. Not surprisingly, given her skepticism, the north is where Dickinson locates her God, but it is also the regions associated with Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In several poems, she refers to winter and “snow” as a “Prank,” a joke God or Nature plays on humans (see “The tint I cannot take” (F696, J627) and “These are the days that Reindeer Love” (F 1705, J1696).

Finally, to bring this back to Dickinson’s relationship to Bowles, Patterson traces a set of poems and letters she wrote to him in 1861-63 beginning with “Title divine in mine” (F194 , J1027) in which Patterson surmises that “snow” refers to sexual purity and the martyrdom of renunciation. We might contest this biographical reading with its symbolic “shorthand” as reductive, though Patterson concedes:

These poems of northern cold and darkness always imply their opposites.

We have only to think of the “White Heat” of creativity that also characterizes this period in Dickinson’s life.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


(the last!) Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

It has been a year of unmitigated creative fun and revelations for me as I blogged every week of Dickinson’s life and writing in 1862!

I recognize how lucky I am to have had the luxury of spending a year with one poet who so richly deserves and repays our closest attention. To be able to read extensively and deeply in the biographical materials has been essential. And to dip into the newspapers and periodicals Dickinson most likely read on a daily basis has sharpened my sense of the issues surrounding her, in the air and on people’s lips and minds. And not only the substance of the news, but its form: the large, packed pages of print, sometimes broken by a tiny square of poetry; reports of grisly war next to fluff pieces reinforcing Victorian sex-gender conventions about “the perfect girl,” “How husbands should act,” “How wives should act,” and so on. Serious news next to the latest in fashion, and in periodicals, now-famous writers published without by-lines.

Another absolute revelation was engaging people to reflect on the weekly posts and the range and depth of passion for Dickinson this unearthed. From the amazing 7th graders at the Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, to a poet and translator living and working under life-threatening conditions in Iraq, a translator of Dickinson in Germany wresting with diction choices, scholars and poets, friends and those who volunteered to reflect whom I had not even met—Dickinson continues to be a comfort and confidante to so many readers around the world and across time.

While the project didn’t manage to include every poem Franklin dated to 1862, it included a good many from “around” that year and some that don’t often get anthologized or discussed. But then, this project reinforced for me the folly of getting too hung up on dates and dating. Dickinson’s canon is a floating, morphing, wonderfully organic landscape that benefits from less strictures and determinations rather than more.

If we can let go of our need to “know,” to figure out the riddles or fill in the omitted center, or “understand” and, thus, pin down and lock in, then the poems have the leeway to work their magic on us more thoroughly. If I had to choose one major take-away from my year with Dickinson’s poetry, it would be:

ask questions rather than assert. Open up meanings rather than close them down. Bring a humility to our reading of the poetry

—a recommendation academics have a hard time embracing. But as the Crossroaders titled their thank you note to me:

Crossroads Thank you, front cover
Crossroads Thank you, front cover

“In Poetry is Possibility.”

Though fun, it was not always an easy year and I was sometimes daunted by how the research and writing on a weekly basis expanded to fit the time. In November, I presented the project to Martha Nell Smith’s class on Dickinson and Whitman at University of Maryland, and one of her students asked me: what gives you the energy to go on every week? Without thinking, I replied: Every week there is a surprise, sometimes many surprises, which sometimes, for me —a Dickinson dilettante—rose to the level of a discovery.

Crossroads Thank you, inside
Crossroads Thank you, inside

A few other take-aways I would pass on:

The letters. There is some wonderful scholarship on Dickinson’s letters but they are not read frequently enough as aesthetic texts in their own right alongside the poetry. And perhaps they require a different, and new, methodology of textual reading. But read them we should be doing on a par with the poetry.

Speaker and Gender. I tried to honor Dickinson’s assertion in her letter to Higginson that her poetic speakers are “representative persons” rather than autobiographical, but then struggled with the presumption that her speakers are necessarily female or feminine or gendered at all! I loved the group of poems we found where Dickinson speaks not just in a masculine voice, but as a boy–a very particularly gendered and located voice. And her use of the plurals they and them for singular subjects or the arresting themself. I found myself often reaching for a non-gendered pronoun with which to refer to Dickinson’s speakers. This is an area that needs so much more work and innovative thought.

The World. Finally, the extent and richness of the world Dickinson occupied and evoked. Reading in the Springfield Republican for July about the discovery of the Swift-Tuttle comet, I wondered if I could find poems that might touch on that event and was amazed to find a whole cluster of poems on Astronomy. Or the cluster of bloody poems on what fellow poet John Greenleaf Whittier called “the battle autumn of 1862.” We are still discovering the many ways that Dickinson engaged with her world and turned it into poetry.

Crossroads Thank you, back cover
Crossroads Thank you, back cover

But this is not the end. Or rather, as Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater and a big fan of Dickinson, implies in his calendar for December: in ending are beginnings. We will probably run the blog again this coming year, so if you have missed any posts, you will be able to catch up. And look for White Heat 1862 in another guise (an ebook) in the coming years.

It has been an honor to share this project with you. Profoundest thanks to my students who worked to make this dream a reality, to my web designer and other tech wizards who lent their expertise, to my family who put up with my incessant monologues on things Dickinsonian, and to all the users, participants and fans who dared to “see a soul at the White Heat.”

Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018
Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018

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

Folsom, L. Edwin. “‘The Souls That Snow’: Winter in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” American Literature 47. 3 (Nov., 1975): 361-376, 376.

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Complete Works.

Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 182-83, 185.

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December 17-23, 1862: Second Crossroads Collaboration

On Monday, December 10th, we journeyed down the Connecticut River Valley in a large yellow school bus with Steve Glazer and his 7th grade class from Crossroads Academy. Our destination was Amherst, Massachusetts, where we would celebrate Dickinson’s 188th birthday in her home town. This week, we describe that visit, explore some children who were crucial in Dickinson’s life, and admire more of the students’ projects from their portfolios on Dickinson.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Eliot Cardinaux
Emily Dickinson by Crossroads student, 2019

Dickinson Day!

On December 10th, we journeyed down the Connecticut River Valley in a large yellow school bus to Amherst, Massachusetts, to celebrate Dickinson’s birthday in her home town. It was a bright, cold day and, as we like to say in the “Upper Valley,” “at least it wasn’t snowing!”

The students in Steve Glazer’s 7th grade class from Crossroads Academy, in Lyme, New Hampshire, were restless with anticipation. As the Pioneer Valley opened up and flattened out, dotted with farms and old tobacco drying sheds, Steve tried to focus the students’ attention with his characteristic call and response: “Where was Emily Dickinson born?” he called through cupped hands to be heard over the rattling bus. “In Amherst, Massachusetts,” the children called back. “What year?” – “In 1830” and so on.

We stopped first at Special Collections in the basement of the Frost Library at Amherst College. Archivist Michael Kelly had a stunning display of objects and manuscripts laid out for us, including a lock of Dickinson’s hair, which is surprisingly ruddy. He showed us manuscripts of poems from early, middle and late in Dickinson’s writing career to illustrate the palpable changes in her handwriting. He was surprised and impressed when he held up the manuscript of a poem, announced its first line and, as if on cue, the entire class recited the poem with one voice. “I see I can up my game with this group,” he responded.

In Amherst College Special Collections
In Amherst College Special Collections, 2018

We then walked over to the Homestead for tours of the house and Dickinson’s bedroom. Perhaps the highlight of the day occurred next door at the Evergreens, where one of the students played her original piano composition inspired by the poem, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” The Museum graciously allowed her to use the Evergreen’s Steinway and we all crowded into Sue and Austin’s parlor to hear it. You can see a video of this performance and more of the students’ projects in the Poems section of this week’s post.

West Cemetery with Crossroads 7th graders, 2018

West Cemetery with Crossroads students, 2019

Then, back to the Homestead where students recited the poems they had memorized in the double parlor with the doors thrown open, under the watchful eyes of the Dickinson children’s group portrait. And, finally, a quiet walk through West Cemetery, flooded with winter afternoon light, to the Dickinson family plot, where we surrounded Dickinson’s gravestone and sang, “This is my letter to the World.” I think, I hope, Emily was listening.

“The Reverent Faith of Childhood”

Springfield Republican, December 20, 1862

Review of the Week, page 1
“Disappointment and disaster cover the week’s history. The march to Richmond by any of Fredericksburg has begun and ended. Our army is in camp again on the north side of the Rappahannock, but weaker by the loss of fifteen thousand men and by the consciousness that it has failed in one of its greatest efforts.”

The National Currency System—Its Advantages to New England, page 2
“[A currency] is designed as a medium of exchange to facilitate the business intercourse [of the people], enabling them to buy and sell, and to receive and make payments. The most indispensable qualities for this medium are, that it should be simple, uniform, and of undoubted value. The local paper currencies of the United States have not these qualities.”

The Reconstruction Puzzle, page 4
“The true way to settle the question as to how the South shall be got back into the Union is to destroy the rebel armies. When the rebellion is ‘crushed out,’ the theoretical difficulties of the problem will disappear. But the theoretical difficulties have very little reality to them. They are chiefly got up by those ingenious amateurs in state craft who think in some way to circumvent the stubborn facts of the situation and get rid of the hard necessity of fighting down the rebellion. The territorial lines, the constitutions and laws of the states in rebellion still exist. South Carolina is still a state, and her state officers elected legally are her rightful state authorities. The act of secession is null and void, and all the acts connected with it—if we can make it so by success in the war.”

Bransby Williams (1870-1961) British comic actor who played Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind
Bransby Williams (1870-1961) British comic actor who played Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind

Books, Authors, and Arts, page 6
“This is a literal age. While seeking to master material forces, they have well-nigh mastered us, leading us to rest content with physical facts, instead of regarding them as the lowest and coarsest forms of subtle spiritual truth. We have lost the reverent faith of childhood; we are like raw schoolboys, who, knowing a little, fancy they know all. Our juvenile libraries contain no fabulous legends or fairy tales; they seem to have been selected by clerical Gradgrinds and offer only ligneous lessons and ferruginous facts.”

Hampshire Gazette, December 23, 1862

Poetry, page 1 [Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) an American poet, literary critic, translator, travel author and diplomat.]

Poem by Bayard Taylor

A New Cabinet, page 2
“The entire cabinet of President Lincoln, with the exception of Secretary Stanton, is said to have resigned. It seems well established that Secretary Seward has resigned the position of Secretary of State, and his son that of assistant secretary. These statements will take the country by surprise, as there had been no previously well-founded rumors of any proposed changes in the cabinet.”

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

from Lyrics of the Street (Part III) by Julia Ward Howe [see earlier parts of the series]

The Charitable Visitor.

She carries no flag of fashion, her clothes are but passing plain,

Though she comes from a city palace all jubilant with her reign.
She threads a bewildering alley, with ashes and dust thrown out,
And fighting and cursing children, who mock as she moves about.

Why walk you this way, my lady, in the snow and slippery ice?
These are not the shrines of virtue, — here misery lives, and vice:
Rum helps the heart of starvation to a courage bold and bad;
And women are loud and brawling, while men sit maudlin and mad.

I see in the corner yonder the boy with the broken arm,
And the mother whose blind wrath did it, strange guardian from childish harm.
That face will grow bright at your coming, but your steward might come as well,
Or better the Sunday teacher that helped him to read and spell. …

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Love by Mishap, page 47 [by Edward Howard House]
“There is nothing in the world like the beautiful devotion of a woman to the sick. She feels no toil, nor pain, nor timid terrors. If she has grief, she hides it, lest it add one feather’s weight to the afflictions of her charge. Her courage rises as her hopes recede. The grim spectre that hovers and threatens may appall her, but she gives no sign. Her eye is clear and gentle; her voice soft and sweet as the breath of summer; her touch so tender that the simplest kindly office soothes like a caress. The dawn of her smile chases away suffering as light dispels the mists of the universe. In her weakness she is stronger than the strong.”

“This Slew all but Him”

Besides the neighborhood urchins, with whom (as we learned in the earlier post on Children) Emily Dickinson was reputedly a popular figure, she had a few young people in her daily world. Notably, the three children of Sue and Austin, who proved to be crucial to her life, writing, and reputation.

Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861-1898)
Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861-1898)

The eldest of these was Edward, called “Ned.” He was a difficult child who was plagued with illness and eventually became a librarian at Amherst College, but died at age 37 of heart problems. Shortly after he was born, Dickinson sent this arch poem to Susan:

Is it true, dear Sue?
Are there two?
I should'nt like to come
For fear of joggling Him!
If you could shut him up
In a Coffee Cup,
Or tie him to a pin
Till I got in –
Or make him fast
To "Toby's" fist –
Hist! Whist! I'd come! (F189, J218)

But by early March 1866, Dickinson wrote to her friend Elizabeth Holland:

We do not always know the source of the smile that flows to us. Ned tells that the Clock purrs and the Kitten ticks. He inherits his Uncle Emily’s ardor for the lie (L315).

Despite Dickinson’s early fears of being displaced in Susan’s affections, she and nephew Ned became cheerful companions, sharing a love of words. Ned’s sister Martha recalled, in her soft-focus memoir:

His love of books kept him near her, and his sense of humor delighted her. He saved all his funniest stories, his gift of mimicry, his power of offhand description for her; and if his Aunt Lavinia went to a neighbor’s for an evening chat, Ned was usually to be found in front of the fire with his Aunt Emily, perched on the edge of a stiff-backed chair, the light of the flames flickering over her white dress, her hands crossed for permanence, but in easy position for flight should their talk be broken by an unwelcome knock.

Martha Dickinson later Bianchi (1866-1943)
Martha Dickinson later Bianchi (1866-1943)

Martha, called “Mattie” by her intimates, was the family memoirist, a poet and an early editor of Dickinson’s works. She was the middle child of Susan and Austin. In a letter to Susan away on holiday in Europe, Aunt Emily described her as “stern and lovely–literary they tell me–a graduate of Mother Goose and otherwise ambitious’” (L333, autumn 1869). Caught in the middle of her parents’ tumultuous relationship, Mattie was a staunch supporter of her mother. After her own failed marriage to an erstwhile “count” Bianchi and her mother’s death, Martha resided at the Evergreens and in 1913 began publishing Dickinson’s poetry and her reminiscences of Dickinson and the family. She eventually published eight volumes of Dickinson’s writings.

Although scholars have sharply criticized her editing of the poems and her sentimentalized recollections, which contributed to the myth of Dickinson as a woman in white who renounced the world because of frustrated love, Bianchi was the first editor to try to faithfully reproduce Dickinson’s original lineation as it appeared in the manuscripts. As Jonathan Morse notes in his helpful essay on the complicated publication history of Dickinson’s work, Bianchi was “ahead of her time” in this regard. The 1924 Complete Poems, which she edited, though in no way “complete,” brought more of Dickinson’s poetry into the world than ever before.

Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson (1875-1883). Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and
Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson (1875-1883). Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and

Last but not least is the third child of Susan and Austin, Thomas Gilbert, called “Gib” by the family. Born to his parents in their middle years and much younger than his siblings, Gib was adored by all, especially his aunt. Biographer Alfred Habegger recounts this story about them:

Once, when little Gilbert was in kindergarten and boasted about a beautiful white calf that proved to be imaginary, his teacher reprimanded him for the sin of lying and made him cry. Sue tried to convince the benighted woman of the validity of the imagination, but Aunt Emily, as her niece [Martha Bianchi] recalled, was too indignant for reasoning and “besought them one and all to come to her, she would show them! The white calf was grazing up in her attic at that very moment!” A note she drafted for the wounded boy to take to his teacher had a poem on “The vanity . . . / Of Industry and Morals” (Fr1547B) and pointedly contrasted the punitive Jonathan Edwards with Jesus.

When Gib, barely 8 years old, died suddenly from typhoid fever, Dickinson reportedly rushed over to the Evergreens to be with the family, the first time she had visited there in fifteen years! She wrote to Elizabeth Holland about this death ( L873, late 1883) and wrote several poems and letters of condolence to Susan about Gib (see L886, F1624, F1666), one which asserted:

Some Arrows slay but whom they strike –
But this slew all but him …  (F1666)

Gib’s death deeply affected the family and apparently precipitated Austin’s affair with the young and alluring Mable Loomis Todd, who, with Thomas Higginson, was the first editor of Dickinson’s poetry. Their affair caused further divisions and enmity among the already hostile parties.

Although Dickinson would suffer other losses around this time—the death of her mother and Judge Otis Lord, a man whom she loved (but refused his offer of marriage)—it was Gib’s death that, some say, contributed to her final illness. There is nothing like the death of a child to reinforce the blighting existence of frost as perennial threat to the youth and innocence of the earthly garden.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Eliot Cardinaux

Have you ever come across an ED poem about Disillusionment? Anxiety? Reality? About how words themselves can be affected by life’s challenges, at least within us, as we grow into and out of and recede from them?

I wonder because her ideals were so wrapped up in her status as a woman at that time, there’s often a bite to what she says.

I was thinking of the way in which words can be struggled with, the way meanings wrap around their things, in language and without, how certain words can produce in us, personally, the need to grapple with how we live, the questions they provoke in us.

While their letters remain the same, each of these words, like tattoos, reel in the years or cause us to, in both senses of the word. A tattoo can change its meanings over time, acquire new ones, and shed those that life has caused us to question, their validity.

A tattoo of a gull caught by a fishing hook might be a good analogy, because to reel, to be struck, for example, like an eagle in flight by a crow, is to lose all sense of balance, and yet fishing for something down below the surface, we can never possess it — whatever mystery that fish holds, the weight of its bite, the force of its pull — without reeling it in. Some violence there, perhaps, in pursuit of the unknown.

Some thoughts on a cold, wet Monday as the snow thaws.

This ― Illusion― Meant

in the loop ― and out
it’s nothing ― personal if
you stay ― calm ― you
stay ― an anxious ― wreck

did you want me ― to scorn
the ear ― did you need
my throat ― to sing
did you want me ― here

to live ― in an unknown
word ― meanings coil ― around
their things ― havoc rings ― my head
a hydra’s ― lizard’s tail ― expendable

wrap ― your tongue ― around
a dash ― in the way ― I need you
there ― this way ― to go
did you want me ― dead

adapting ― hand in
hand ― with blindness
to the drug ― is the score
the truth ― that ― malleable

out the loop ― and in
it’s nothing ― special
you stay ― calm ― to
stay ― an anxious ― wreck


bio: Eliot Cardinaux
Poet, Pianist, Multimedia Artist


Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
December 23, 1862
Springfield Republican, December 20, 1862


Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences by Her Niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932, 169.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson New York: Random House, 2001, 548.

Morse, Jonathan. “Bibliographical Essay.” A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Vivian Pollak .New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 255-83, 258-60.

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December 10-16, 1862: Paradise

This week, to celebrate Dickinson’s 188th birthday, we focus on the “occupation” she declared for herself in “I dwell in Possibility,” gathering Paradise. What does this mean and what is its relationship with poetry? Dickinson was not always so optimistic and knew Milton’s great poem, Paradise Lost, very well. We also have fresh in our minds the devastating effects of the Camp Fire, which roared through the town of Paradise in northern California. In gathering Paradise, Dickinson often failed to find it or lost it, and that is part of this story as well.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Martha Nell Smith

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf


This week in 1862, Emily Dickinson celebrated her 32nd birthday, and there was something to celebrate. She had weathered the emotional crises of the past year, was writing astonishing poetry at an astonishing rate, and had established fruitful relations with a new literary interlocutor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

At the end of his “Letter to a Young Contributor,” which a struggling Dickinson read in the April issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Higginson calls on “the mute inglorious Miltons of this sphere” to “sing their Paradise as Found.” At some point in the year, Dickinson will write a signature poem of optimism, “I dwell in Possibility” (F466, J657), that seems to answer Higginson's call directly. Describing her imaginative “dwelling,” and with a characteristic playfulness of scale, she declares:

For Occupation—This—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

This week, we focus on Dickinson’s stated “occupation,” gathering Paradise. What does she mean by that and what is its relationship to poetry? Next week, on December 19, Susan Gilbert Dickinson would also celebrate her 32nd birthday. Although relations between the two girlhood friends were strained at this time, Dickinson frequently links Sue’s love and support and her boundless love for Sue with “forever” and “Infinity,” a kind of Paradise on earth (see Letters 288 and 912).

But Dickinson was not always so optimistic; she  knew Milton’s great poem, Paradise Lost, very well. We also have fresh in our minds the devastating effects of the Camp Fire, which roared through the town of Paradise in northern California, destroying it. Our literal “Paradise” turned into a hell and burned to cinders by climate change.

Similarly, in gathering Paradise, Dickinson often also failed to find it or lost it, and that is part of this story as well.

“Lift the Earth to Paradise”

Springfield Republican, December 13, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The sameness of long continued planning and preparation is at length relieved by a real battle and several important forward movements. The enemy in northwestern Arkansas rallied from their defeat by Gen. Blunt at Cane Hill [on November 28] and reinforced by Gen. Hindman attacked Gen. Herron’s division of our army at Fayetteville with superior numbers but were repulsed and driven again to the Boston mountains after a battle of great severity. The contest has begun at Fredericksburg, and Gen. Banks’ expedition is moving off in installments to its unknown destinations; important movements of some sort are going forward at Newbern and at Suffolk; the armies of Grant and Hovey have reached Grenada, Mississippi,  the enemy retreating before them; a naval expedition has left Hilton Head, S.C., for some point North, and may cooperate with Gen Banks at Wilmington, N.C.; the Gulf squadron has been reinforced for an attack on Mobile; the blockade of Charleston has been strengthened, and all things look like work.”

In late 1861, the US Navy bought old ships, loaded them with New England granite, then sank them off Charleston in an attempt to blockade the harbor. credit Brian Hicks
In late 1861, the US Navy bought old ships, loaded them with New England granite, then sank them off Charleston in an attempt to blockade the harbor. credit Brian Hicks

The First Condition of Peace, page 2
“Our armies are now at their maximum strength. All that we shall add henceforth will not more than replace the natural waste by sickness, desertion and death. The past history of the war shows that location reduces our armies quite as rapidly as an active campaign and demoralizes them more. If, then, the war is to be brought to a successful issue, the ensuing three months must be months of the most energetic activity. If before spring we have taken Richmond, Charleston and Savannah, have driven the rebels from Tennessee, and got full possession of the Mississippi, then we may begin to talk about peace upon terms that shall be honorable to the government and safe for the nation.”

Fallen Leaves (by Henry D. Thoreau), page 7 [excerpted from “Autumnal Hints” in the Atlantic Monthly, October 1862.]

“When the leaves fall, the whole earth is a cemetery pleasant to walk in. I love to wander and muse over them in their graves. Here are no lying nor vain epitaphs. Your lot is surely cast somewhere in this vast cemetery, which has been consecrated as of old. You need attend no auction to secure a place. There is room enough here. The loose-strife shall bloom, and the huckleberry-bird sing over your bones. The woodman and hunter shall be your sextons, and the children shall tread upon the borders as much as they will. Let us walk in the cemetery of the leaves—this is your true Greenwood cemetery.”

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“The literary metropolis of New England leans rather to books than periodicals, rather to journals than magazines. The Atlantic Monthly is an exception. Its contributors are many and eminent, not those merely who lend it the luster of their names, but those who write for it often and well. Holmes and Lowell, Emerson  and Agassiz  have each departments in which they have been rarely equaled, never surpassed. Mrs. Stowe writes as a woman never wrote before, and other feminine authors, a round dozen in number, have furnished essays, romances and poems that could not well be spared. Yet we have a few things against it, deserving and prosperous as it has improved. It has contained during the last year many articles of public interest, yet its statesmanship lacks the impress of a mastermind, and is only to be inferred from the aggregate of varying contributions. Its poetry was very early stigmatized as pretentious and dull, and has varied widely from the average standard, alternating from the vigorous to the vapid.”

Hampshire Gazette, December 16, 1862

“This forever looking forward for enjoyment, don’t pay. From what we know of it, we would as soon chase butterflies for a living, or bottle up moonshine for cloudy nights. The only true course is to take the drops of Happiness as God gives them to us, every day of our lives. The boy must learn to be happy when he is plodding over his lessons; the apprentice when he is learning his trade; the merchant while he is making his fortune. If he fails to learn this art, he will be sure to miss his enjoyment, when he gains what he sighs for.”

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

[The issue leads off with this essay, a description of paradise on earth]

“The Procession of the Flowers,” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson
“To a watcher from the sky, the march of the flowers of any zone would seem as beautiful as that West-Indian pageant. These frail creatures, rooted where they stand, a part of the ‘still life’ of Nature, yet share her ceaseless motion. In the most sultry silence of summer noons, the vital current is coursing with desperate speed through the innumerable veins of every leaflet; and the apparent stillness, like the sleeping of a child’s top, is in truth the very ecstasy of perfected motion.”

[and end with this, a depiction of hell on earth]

“My Hunt after The Captain” by Oliver Wendel Holmes [Holmes describes his frantic search through Civil War-torn landscapes for his wounded son, the future Supreme Court Justice]

“And now, as we emerged from Frederick, we struck at once upon the trail from the great battle-field. The road was filled with straggling and wounded soldiers. All who could travel on foot,— multitudes with slight wounds of the upper limbs, the head, or face,— were told to take up their beds,—alight burden or none at all— and walk. Just as the battle-field sucks everything into its red vortex for the conflict, so does it drive everything off in long, diverging rays after the fierce centripetal forces have met and neutralized each other. For more than a week there had been sharp fighting all along this road. Through the streets of Frederick, through Crampton's Gap, over South Mountain, sweeping at last the hills and the woods that skirt the windings of the Antietam, the long battle had travelled, like one of those tornadoes which tear their path through our fields and villages. The slain of higher condition, “embalmed” and iron-cased, were sliding off on the railways to their far homes; the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and committed hastily to the earth; the gravely wounded were cared for hard by the scene of conflict, or pushed a little way along to the neighboring villages; while those who could walk were meeting us, as I have said, at every step in the road. It was a pitiable sight, truly pitiable, yet so vast, so far beyond the possibility of relief, that many single sorrows of small dimensions have wrought upon my feelings more than the sight of this great caravan of maimed pilgrims. The companionship of so many seemed to make a joint-stock of their suffering; it was next to impossible to individualize it, and so bring it home, as one can do with a single broken limb or aching wound.”

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Edward Howard House (1836-1901)
Edward Howard House (1836-1901)

Love by Mishap, Edward Howard House
“But was it the sunlight that suddenly flashed across those four young faces, or the full tide of hope, and joy, and faith bounding ruddy from their hearts, and, as it glowed and beamed, openly telling the secret of their dearest thoughts in that happy hour? Ah, that happy hour! There is none other like it, to glorify the present, to gild the future, to turn the thorny ways of life to paths of bounteous promise, to lift the earth to paradise.”

“Earth so like to Heaven”

We have little information about how Dickinson would have celebrated her 32nd birthday or Susan’s 32nd birthday the following week on December 19, but such anniversaries are often an occasion to sit back and take stock. As explained in the Overview, sometime during this year, Dickinson wrote a poem in which she declared her “Occupation” to be that of gathering “Paradise,” which, presumably, she discerned all around her, there for the taking. Many of her letters support the notion, garnered from Romantic and Transcendental writers, of a Paradise on earth.

For example, Patrick Keane notes that in an 1852 letter to Sue, Dickinson cites but rewrites a passage about an earthly paradise from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem she knew well. As the archangel Raphael struggles to explain celestial warfare to a human mind by “lik’ning spiritual to corporeal form,” he wonders:

Though what if Earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to the other like, more than on earth is thought?” (Paradise Lost 5:573-76).

At this time, Susan is away and Dickinson, who is missing her deeply, writes:

I can only thank “the Father” for giving me such as you, I can only pray unceasingly, that he will bless my Loved One, and bring her back to me to “go no more out forever.” “Herein is Love.” But that was Heaven –– this is but Earth, yet Earth so like to heaven that I would hesitate, should the true one call away.” (L85, 195)

The phrase “go no more out” is from Revelation 3:12 where Christ assures the faithful that on the Day of Judgment, they will never have to leave heaven. Dickinson adds the “forever.” Keane comments on how Dickinson reverses Raphael’s “therein” to locate love “Herein,” on earth “and concludes by taking literally the angel’s rhetorical but intriguing question.” As support, he cites an 1873 letter to Elizabeth Holland, a close friend, in which Dickinson notes that her sister Lavinia just returned from a visit to the Hollands and reported they “dwell in paradise.” Dickinson adds wryly:

I have never believed the latter to be a supernatural site.
Eden, always eligible, is peculiarly so this noon. It would please you to see how intimate the Meadows are with the Sun … While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that “this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption”—it has already done so and they go defrauded” (L391, 508).

Dickinson's gardens recreated at the Homestead
Dickinson's gardens recreated at the Homestead

Paradise, for Dickinson, was closely associated with her friends, her loved ones and gardens, especially at the height of summer, the season for her of ecstasy and transport. Keane borrows the term “Natural Supernaturalism” from the writer Thomas Carlyle to describe Dickinson’s conception of paradise, especially in terms of influences from the works of Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson:

In his essay on the mystic Swendenborg in Representative Men, Emerson claimed that the only thing “certain” about a possible heaven was that it must “tally with what was best in nature.” It “must not be inferior in tone…agreeing with flowers, with tides, and the rising and setting of autumnal stars.”

Dickinson’s “preceptor,” Thomas Higginson, voices a similar view in his essay in the Atlantic Monthly for this month, which Dickinson praises him for in a later letter. In the final passages, he addresses the important point, also on Dickinson’s mind, that our inability to perceive the heaven around us indicates a “defect … in men:”

But, after all, the fascination of summer lies not in any details, however perfect, but in the sense of total wealth which summer gives. Wholly to enjoy this, one must give one's self passively to it, and not expect to reproduce it in words. We strive to picture heaven, when we are barely at the threshold of the inconceivable beauty of earth. Perhaps the truant boy who simply bathes himself in the lake and then basks in the sunshine, dimly conscious of the exquisite loveliness around him, is wiser, because humbler, than is he who with presumptuous phrases tries to utter it. There are multitudes of moments when the atmosphere is so surcharged with luxury that every pore of the body becomes an ample gate for sensation to flow in, and one has simply to sit still and be filled. In after-years the memory of books seems barren or vanishing, compared with the immortal bequest of hours like these. Other sources of illumination seem cisterns only; these are fountains. …
If, in the simple process of writing, one could physically impart to this page the fragrance of this spray of azalea beside me, what a wonder would it seem!—and yet one ought to be able, by the mere use of language, to supply to every reader the total of that white, honeyed, trailing sweetness, which summer insects haunt and the Spirit of the Universe loves. The defect is not in language, but in men. There is no conceivable beauty of blossom so beautiful as words,—none so graceful, none so perfumed. It is possible to dream of combinations of syllables so delicious that all the dawning and decay of summer cannot rival their perfections, nor winter's stainless white and azure match their purity and their charm. To write them, were it possible, would be to take rank with Nature; nor is there any other method, even by music, for human art to reach so high.

But if paradise is a garden, then it has the earthly limits of gardens, such as frost and death. In a letter from August 1856 to Elizabeth Holland, Dickinson describes her vision of heaven on earth with a series of conditional clauses. She also reprises the phrase she used in her 1852 letter to Sue from Revelation 3:12:

I read my Bible sometimes and in it as I read today, I found a verse like this, where friends should “go no more out” … And I am half tempted to take my seat in that Paradise of which the good man writes, and begin forever and ever now, so wondrous does it seem. My only sketch, profile, of Heaven is a large, blue sky, bluer and larger than the biggest I have seen in June, and in it are my friends–all of them–every one of them–those who are with me now, and those who were “parted” as we walked, and “snatched up to Heaven.”

If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not awaken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below, and if God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I have seen—I guess he would think His Paradise superfluous. Don’t tell Him, for the world, though, for after all He’s said about it, I should like to see what He was building for us, with no hammer, and no stone, and no journeyman either (L185).

From this, Keane concludes,

Emily Dickinson’s Earthly Paradise is not only beautiful but death-haunted.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Martha Nell Smith

December 1862. Susan and Emily Dickinson have had quite a year. In March, Susan excitedly wrote Emily,

. . .There were two or
three little things I wanted to talk
with you about without witnesses
but to-morrow will do just as
well – Has girl read Republican?
It takes as long to start our
Fleet as the Burnside.

Susan refers to the publication of “The Sleeping,” a version of Emily’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” just above Susan’s own “The Shadow of Thy Wing.” Their substantive exchange about the meaning, the effects, the power of this poem (see “Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem”) resonate with Susan’s declaration in a letter to Curtis Hidden Page

. . . Poetry is my
sermon – my hope – my solace
my life –
            Yours very sincerely
            S. H. Dickinson

out of the storm
February seventeenth /

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (1830-1913)
Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (1830-1913)

Poetry is Possibility. Gathering wide our narrow hands to gather Paradise. Poetry was sermon – hope – solace – life for both Susan and Emily Dickinson. No wonder the manuscripts passed between them are spattered with traces of wine, delicious morsels, the stains of a flower dried and long pressed against the word made flesh, the pinholes made when attached to Susan’s sewing basket or to an album in which she preserved her beloved friend’s poetry, poetry written and given to her, Emily Dickinson’s most frequently addressed audience. So often and so many were these carnal, heavenly bequests that Susan noted to editor William Hayes Ward how “baffled” Emily’s own sister Lavinia was by Susan’s “possession of so many mss. of Emily’s.

On May 15, 1886, Emily Dickinson took her last breath, but she left two major archives of her scriptures, verses that are alive and, as long as there are readers, always will be.

1862. A year when Susan contributed “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” to the Springfield Republican, a year they could savor seeing their work printed together. By the time of their birthdays, Susan had submitted several poems of Emily’s to publications in places such as Drum Beat, Round Table, Brooklyn Daily Union. Back in April, they had strategized which copy of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” to send to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in response to his “Letter to a Young Contributor.”

bio: Martha Nell Smith is Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, Professor of English, and Founding Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH at the University of Maryland.  Her numerous print publications include six singly and coauthored or co-edited books—Emily Dickinson, A User’s Guide (2018); Everywoman Her Own Theology: Essays on the Poetry of Alicia Suskin Ostriker (2018); I Dwell in Possibility: Collaborative Emily Dickinson Translation Project, edited with Professor Baihua Wang, Fudan University (2017); Companion to Emily Dickinson (Jan 2008); Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Dickinson (1998; Choice); Comic Power in Emily Dickinson (1993; Choice); Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (1992; Hans Rosenhaupt First Book Award Honorable Mention, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation)—and scores of articles and essays in journals and collections such as American Literature, Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture, Textual Cultures, ESQ, Studies in the Literary Imagination, Journal of Victorian Culture, South Atlantic Quarterly, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Profils Americains, San Jose Studies, The Emily Dickinson Journal, ESQ, Journal of Victorian Culture, and A Companion to Digital Humanities. Most recently, working with Professor Baihua Wang of Fudan University (Shanghai), Smith has edited sections on Dickinson for three different international journals—Comparative Literature, World Literature, Cowrie: A Journal of Comparative Literature and Culture, and the International Journal of Poetry and Poetics. At present she is completing Lives of Susan Dickinson, and Life Before Last: Martha Dickinson Bianchi's Memoir (ed. with Jane Wald, Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum).


Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Letter to a Young Contributor.” Atlantic Monthly, April 1862.

“Camp Fire.” USA Today. November 29, 2018.

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
December 16, 1862
Springfield Republican, December 13, 1862

Higginson, Thomas. “The Procession of the Flowers.” Atlantic Monthly X. LXII December 1862.

Keane. Patrick. “Natural Supernaturalism: Emily Dickinson’s Variations on the Romantic Theme of an Earthly Paradise.Numéro Cinq V.12 December 2014.

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December 3-9, 1862: Language, Wonder, Freedom

For the past few weeks, we have been collaborating with the 7th grade class at the Crossroads Academy in Lyme, NH, on an amazing month-long unit on Emily Dickinson developed by Steve Glazer. This week we showcase the marvelous projects by his students in the Poems section and also explore Dickinson’s relation to children and how her poetry was originally marketed to a young audience in a watered-down form.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Steve Glazer

Emily Dickinson by Crossroads student, 2019

First Week of the Crossroads Academy Collaboration

For a few weeks in November 2018 and 2019, we collaborated with the 7th grade class at the Crossroads Academy in Lyme, NH, a few miles down the road from Dartmouth College. Our friend, Steven Glazer, has developed an amazing month-long unit on Emily Dickinson that culminates with a trip to Amherst, MA on December 10th, Dickinson’s birthday! The class visits the archives at Amherst College to view Dickinson’s manuscripts and takes a tour of the Homestead at the Emily Dickinson Museum, where students recite the poems by Dickinson they have memorized—in the parlor! It concludes with the requisite visit to Dickinson’s grave in the cemetery down the street from her house.

Class at Crossroads Academy
Class at Crossroads Academy

At the beginning of the unit, I journeyed to Steve’s class twice to introduce the many digital tools and websites on Dickinson, including White Heat, and especially the Emily Dickinson Archive that makes the manuscripts of Dickinson’s poems accessible to everyone. Steve’s challenging unit on Dickinson has several related themes: the power of language, the power of wonder and the question, what is freedom? Steve will explain his project-approach to Dickinson in more detail in this blog, and for this week and the week of December 17th we will showcase the marvelous and varied projects by his students in the Poems section, so you can see what they achieved and what about Dickinson captivated and absorbed them.

Portfolio Covers by Crossroads Students, 2019

This week, we will also use the occasion of this collaboration to explore Dickinson’s relation to children and how her poetry was originally marketed to a young audience in a watered-down form. The Crossroads 7th graders are reading an undiluted Dickinson. It is a thrill watch them rise to this challenge and share their unabashed enthusiasm for Dickinson and poetry.

“Rise in your Might then, Women of the North!”

Springfield Republican, December 6, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“Reports of warlike movements during the week have been few and unimportant, leaving public attention free to occupy itself with the assembling of Congress, the president’s annual message, and the reports of the various departments, now more than ever important and interesting to the people from the vast war on our hands and its immense draft upon our resources.”

Official and General, page 1
“The president’s annual message has been generally read this week. The only important feature is a proposition for amendments to the constitution, authorizing payment from the national treasury for slaves emancipated by any state previous to the year 1900. This measure the president puts forward as the best means of procuring permanent peace. He does not propose to compel emancipation by it anywhere, but only offer government aid as an inducement to it.”

Original Poetry: from “The Women of ’62,” page 6

Poor seem these tasks and lame, but we shall find
Enough in them to till the noblest mind,
Warring with right ‘gainst wrong;
Rise in your might then, women of the North!
Rise in your might, and send your dearest forth,
And bid your men be strong.

Hampshire Gazette, December 9, 1862

Amherst, page 2
“The benevolent citizens of Amherst sent a good dinner to many a poor family in that town on Thanksgiving Day. S.F. Cutler and B.W. Allen were first in the good work and Whipple & Ward also gave liberally from their markets.”

The Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

Life in the Open Air” by Theodore Winthrop (1828-1861), page 691

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful is dawn in the woods. Sweet the first opalescent stir, as if the vanguard sunbeams shivered as they dashed along the chilly reaches of night. And the growth of day, through violet and rose and all its golden glow of promise, is tender and tenderly strong, as the deepening passions of dawning love. Presently up comes the sun very peremptory, and says to people, “Go about your business! Laggards not allowed in Maine! Nothing here to repent of, while you lie in bed and curse today because it cannot shake off the burden of yesterday; all clear the past here; all serene the future: into it at once!”

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Random Recollections of a Life: Charles Dickens by J.H. (Joachim Hayward) Stocqueler (1801-1886), page 79

Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814–1906)
Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814–1906)

“Of Charles Dickens whose family I had known in his boyhood, I saw but little excepting when he was in public. His incessant literary occupations, his amateur theatricals, his operations as chief agent for the execution of Miss Burdett Coutts’s charitable actions, his visits abroad, and the necessity he was under of being much at the service of strange visitors gave him but little time for tête-à-têtes with old friends. We were all surprised at the announcement which he published in Household Words regarding his domestic déménage, but the ultimate separation from Mrs. Dickens occasioned no astonishment.

Catherine Thomson
Catherine Thomson "Kate" Dickens (1815-1879)

Never were two people less suited to each other. He, ardent, sanguine, energetic, full of imagination and animated by powerful human sympathies; she, supine, frivolous, commonplace, passing her time between the nursery and the drawing-room.”

“Laughing Goddess of Plenty?”

BasketWhat was Dickinson’s attitude towards and relationship with children? According to Burleigh Mutén, children’s author and tour guide at the Dickinson Museum, the neighborhood children, including Ned and Mattie, Dickinson’s nephew and niece living next door in the Evergreens, cheered when they realized it was “Baking Day” at the Homestead. Because if they played pirates or gypsies in the orchards behind the big house, “Miss Emily” would load up a basket with cookies or slices of cake, often gingerbread, go to the window at the rear of the house (“so their mothers wouldn’t see,” explains Mutén) and lower the basket down to them with a rope.

The source of this story is MacGregor Jenkins, the son of a pastor who lived across the street from the Dickinsons and was a regular recipient of Dickinson’s largesse. In a reminiscence first published in the Christian Union in October 1891, and later collected in his book, Emily Dickinson, Friend and Neighbor (1930), Jenkins described his neighbor as the children’s “laughing goddess of plenty” who offered the children “dainties dear to our hearts” and included notes that begged, “Please never grow up.” Jenkins reported that even as Dickinson became reclusive and narrowed her circle of intimates, children were always welcomed if they knocked at the back door. Mutén concludes:

They did not see their loyal friend as eccentric, but as one whose humor, generosity and loyalty was ever-present.

In an essay about the short-lived attempt to recast Dickinson as an author for children, Ingrid Satelmajer tells a different, less charming story. Dickinson’s first editors both knew the value of periodicals in spreading the reputation of writers. In his “Preface” to the first edition of Dickinson’s Poems (1890), Thomas Higginson captured the public’s imagination by casting Dickinson as a “recluse by temperament and habit,” comparing her to someone who “dwelt in a nunnery.” To counter this daunting impression, Mabel Loomis Todd began to give lectures as early as April 1891 in which she told audiences, “to children … she was always accessible.” To bolster this version of Dickinson, Todd began to send Dickinson poems, heavily edited and regularized, to children’s magazines in what Satelmajer calls

a marketing ploy gone awry.

Two poems, “Morning” (“Will there really be a ‘morning?’” F148, J101) and “The Sleeping Flowers” (“Whose are the little beds” F85, J142 ) appeared in St. Nicholas, a popular and widely circulating magazine for children, which published work by such prestigious authors as William Jennings Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and Frances Hodgson Burnett.

The setting of “Morning” as the lead poem on a page opposite an illustration of “Spring Blossoms” by George Wharton Edwards, a “marquee name” at the time according to Satelmajer,

gives the speaker the decided lisp of a precocious child.

This version of Dickinson served to counter the scandal that ensued when the Christian Register published Dickinson’s somewhat blasphemous “God is a distant – stately Lover -,” which compares God’s use of Christ to “woo” humans to Miles Standish’s use of John Alden to woo Priscilla Mullins, a subject taken up in the famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was also good publicity for the next volume of Dickinson's posthumous poems, which would appear in 1891. Todd continued to claim Dickinson’s child friendliness, citing the publication of the two poems as proof that

[m]any of Emily Dickinson’s daintiest verses are for children,

without disclosing the radical surgery they underwent at her hands.

Still, Satelmajer concludes, there is no evidence that this campaign produced a children’s market for Dickinson. The same is not true today. There is a busy market for collections of Dickinson’s verse, curated, though not edited, for children. For example, in 2016 Susan Snively edited Emily Dickinson, the premier title in the Poetry for Kids series. The publisher’s description reads:

Each poem is beautifully illustrated by Christine Davenier and thoroughly explained by an expert. The gentle introduction, which is divided into sections by season of the year, includes commentary, definitions of important words, and a foreword.

There are also a raft of young adult novels and books that promote Dickinson to the pre-teen and teen set, especially to eager smart girls and boys like the Crossroads 7th graders, who bristled at the notion that Higginson and Todd changed so much as a dash in a Dickinson poem.

One point of attraction for them may be the many poems in which Dickinson adopts the child’s voice. Several scholars write extensively about this strategy, including biographer Cynthia Wolff, and see it as a proto-feminist critique of women’s infantilization in 19th century American culture. In 2003, Claire Raymond studied Dickinson’s child personas who speak posthumously and concluded that this strategy

is a mode of reclaiming the spent self, and perhaps also a critique of domination refracted through the prism of the voice deemed too small to be heard. There is a poignancy granted many of Dickinson’s more powerful child-spoken poems
which belies the notion that she took up the child’s voice mainly as an ironic commentary on woman’s place in culture. Rather, the poems engage a palpable erasure of the self, both as name and as body.

In Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917, Angela Sorby examines Dickinson’s child-voice poems and links the history of her reception in the 1890s to the

discourse of infantilization and pedagogy that dominated American popular poetry of the period and, to a great extent, continues to do so today.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Steve Glazer

“What is freedom?” This is a powerful question for many adults; it is also a question that begins to percolate through the minds of adolescents during the middle school years. This question is also the essential question for my seventh-grade students at Crossroads Academy.

During the summer before seventh grade, the students read The Call of the Wild. As they fall in love with Buck, they gain insight into what freedom means for Jack London. As the school year begins, they contrast London’s fantasy with Frederick Douglass’s reality. They read the full text of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass along with excerpts from Caleb Bingham’s Columbian Orator, the text that taught Douglass the rhetoric of freedom.
A copy of The Columbian Orator at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN

Later in the fall, we analyze the table of contents of Realms of Gold, our English 7 anthology. The students learn to see what is largely missing from this text: works by women. This allows us to ask an important question:

Why are women under-represented?

After a heated discussion, we begin a new unit, “Raising our Voices.” We read across seventy-five years and five genres: a political document, “The Declaration of Sentiments” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton; a work of nonfiction, “A Red Record” by Ida B. Wells; a short story, “The Yellow Wall-paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; a poem, “Are Women People?” by Alice Duer Miller; and an essay, the “Shakespeare’s Sister” section of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One’s Own. Time and time and again, we return to our essential question.

What is freedom for the women gathered in Seneca Falls?  What is freedom for Gilman’s nameless protagonist? What does Woolf mean when she says that for so many years, “anonymous was a woman”? 

The unit concludes with a four-week unit focusing on the life and work of Emily Dickinson.

How did Emily Dickinson’s work come to appear in Realms of Gold? What are the individual and social circumstances that led to her being able to “raise her voice”? How was her unique and powerful voice edited and corrupted by three generations of editors?  How does Dickinson’s room differ from Gilman’s room? Can we come to recognize that our rich understanding of Emily Dickinson’s life and work is, in fact, a fulfillment of Virginia Woolf’s dream?

Contemporary scholarship, the Emily Dickinson Museum, and enable my middle school students to work directly with Dickinson’s letters, manuscripts, envelope poems, fascicles, and herbarium. We can almost—but not quite—touch the hands that “cannot see,” the hands that seek to “gather paradise.”

Over four weeks, the students learn about Dickinson, poetry, scholarship, and literary criticism as they construct a “Letter to the World” portfolio. The portfolio includes a wide array of reading, writing, research, and record-keeping challenges. In just a few weeks, the students develop a level of intimacy and mastery that very few students (or adults) have. And after freedom, mastery is something that so many adolescents crave. The project culminates with a visit to Dickinson’s hometown on her birthday, December 10. We visit the Dickinson archive at Amherst College, we tour the Homestead and the Evergreens, we recite poems in Emily Dickinson’s parlor, and we sing “This is my letter to the World” at her gravestone.

Bio: In 1985, I graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, with a BA in English Language & Literature. I continued my studies at the University of Chicago, where I earned a master’s degree in English & American Literature. I am the author or editor of five books, including The Heart of LearningBest of Valley Quest, and Questing: A Guide to Creating Community Treasure Hunts. In 2015, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History recognized me as the “New Hampshire History Teacher of the Year.” Before joining the Crossroads Academy faculty in 2013, I directed the Valley Quest program for a decade. I have also served as an adjunct faculty member at Antioch New England Graduate School (Heritage Studies), Plymouth State University (Education), and the Center for Whole Communities (Community Facilitation). It is my pleasure and privilege to help students grapple with classic texts, learn to express their ideas with precision and eloquence, and struggle with the essential questions of English 7 and 8: “What is freedom?” and “What is justice?”



Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
December 9, 1862
Springfield Republican, December 6, 1862


Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "Preface," Poems by Emily Dickinson. Eds. Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890; reprint Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1967, iii, v.

Jenkins, MacGregor. “Reminiscences of Emily Dickinson.”  Emily Dickinson's Reception in the 189os. Ed. Buckingham, 141-42, 141; first published in The Boston Evening Transcript, 2 May I891, 9.

Mutén, Burleigh. “Cook’s Cook: Emily Dickinson, Poet and Baker.” 10-2017

Raymond, Claire. “Emily Dickinson as the Un-named, Buried Child.”
Emily Dickinson Journal 12. 1, 2003: 107-122, 108.

Satelmajer, Ingrid. “Dickinson as Child's Fare: The Author Served up in ‘St. Nicholas.’” Book History 5 (2002): 105-142, 107, 113, 124, 127.

Sorby, Angela. Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917. Hanover: University of New England Press, 2005.

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November 26-December 2, 1862: Time

Several scholars have noted Dickinson’s obsession with time. As we near the end of our year with Dickinson and the shortest day of the year, we explore this significant theme in Dickinson’s work, its origins in the Protestant tradition, in Romanticism and Transcendentalism, and the challenging and often contradictory forms it takes in Dickinson’s work. We also consider Dickinson’s relationship to time understood in terms of her own time, her historical context, and her deep engagement with time as meter and rhythm in her innovative poetry.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Zoë Pollak

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Thinking about grand themes like death and aftermath in Dickinson’s poetry, as we have done for the past couple of weeks, has inspired this week’s focus on a related and encompassing subject – time, temporality, and eternity. Several scholars have noted Dickinson’s obsession with time. For Sharon Cameron,

Dickinson's lyrics are especially caught up in the oblique dialectic of time and immortality.

In a moving essay on the subject, Peggy O’Brien considers Dickinson in relation to other poets, early and late, and finds:

Viewing Dickinson through the lens of her fixation on time reveals her absolute uniqueness. … Dickinson’s specificity about time, the way she makes it palpable and pressing, allows her to inhabit this metaphysical plane and bring her readers in their stubborn corporeality along with her in hers to it.

As we near the end of our year with Dickinson and the shortest day of the year, we tackle this significant theme, which is unmistakable in her writing, to see what she does with it around 1862.

Many readers chalk up Dickinson’s obsession with time to her Romanticism. But from the Calvinist Protestant tradition, Dickinson inherited a strong concept of time shaped by God and by ideas of salvation and immortality. In many of her poems, however, she questions this tradition and its notion of eschatology, the theory of the “end times.” The ideas about time Dickinson evolves in place of traditional Christian ones are challenging, sometimes contradictory, and often surprising for the way she adopts current philosophical and scientific thinking about time and space and anticipates modern philosophers of time. We will explore these challenges and also consider Dickinson’s relationship to time understood in terms of her own time, her historical context, and her deep engagement with time as meter and rhythm in her innovative poetry.

“Let But a Brilliant Genius Arise”

Springfield Republican, November 29, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The expectations raised by the military movements of last week are disappointed. Gen. Burnside did not make the anticipated attempt to cut off the retreat of the rebel army to Richmond, and still remains on the north bank of the Rappahannock opposite Fredericksburg. The severe storm, spoiling the roads and producing great discomfort and not a little positive suffering in our half-sheltered army, is one cause of the delay; and another is found in the slow coach movements of the departments of supply at Washington.”

The Greek Revolution, page 2
“The late rebellion in Greece was universal. Never before, perhaps, has a whole people so unanimously elected a ruler, or set a reigning sovereign adrift. The citizens, the clergy, the army and the navy were all against King Otto, and he left the country he had lived in and governed for 80 years, without a voice raised in his favor, or hardly a friend to mourn his departure.”

Poetry, page 6
“The Trundle Bed.” [First copyrighted in 1860, “My Trundle Bed” was written by John C. Baker to be sung by Miss Lizzie Hutchinson of the Hutchinson family. For the full poem, see  American Radio History, July 3, 1937.]

Books, Authors, and Arts, page 7
“We have a class of ambitious writers who imitate nobody but Harriet Prescott  and Elizabeth Sheppard. These women possess real genius, but of a peculiar kind, and which often clothes itself in grotesque and extravagant forms. They are, therefore, the very last persons whose cast-off clothing can be supposed to be a general fit, and the unfortunate wights who gather up and adopt as a costume their fallen finery are seldom at ease in it and have all the disadvantages of caricatures of an exceptional original. Let but a brilliant genius arise whose rare gifts redeem his striking faults, who even takes advantage of them as foils, and hundreds of petty persons who have no remarkable gifts whatever will at once proceed to imitate what to them alone is  inimitable and present a disgusted public with an abundance of life-size copies of their favorite’s defects.”

Hampshire Gazette, December 2, 1862

Mosquito Experience (from Henry Ward Beecher’s Eyes and Ears), page 1
“Much of the anxiety of business is mere mosquito-hunting. When I see a man pale and anxious, not for what has happened, but for what may happen, I say, ‘Strike your own face, do it again, and keep doing it for there is nothing else to hit.’ Everybody has his own mosquitos, that fly by night or bite by day. There are few men of nerves firm enough to calmly let them bite. Most men insist upon flagellating themselves for the sake of not hitting their troubles.”

Amherst, page 3
“Rev. C. L. Woodworth, chaplain to the 27th regiment, arrived at his home in Amherst on Friday evening week. He preached to his old congregation on the following Sunday, and will speak, to the citizens of Amherst, at the congregational church, this evening, giving a history of his experience in camp.”

Harper’s Monthly, November 1862

The Army of the Potomac — Our Outlying Picket in the Woods, a wood engraving sketched by Winslow Homer and published in Harper's Weekly, June 7, 1862.
The Army of the Potomac — Our Outlying Picket in the Woods, a wood engraving sketched by Winslow Homer and published in Harper's Weekly, June 7, 1862.

Editor’s Table, page 845
“We are now in the second year of the war, and this autumn, which is likely to bring with it signal events, cannot but urge upon us most significant thoughts. We are now in the third stage of our national crisis. Fort Sumter taught us that we are a people, and mean to stand by our national life; Bull Run convinced us that we must have an army, and gave us the most magnificent army on earth; the Army of the Potomac has shown us that we must have a government equal to the issue, and it is upon this imperative want that both the people and the army are now dwelling with intense emphasis. Why more efficiency in the Government is demanded, what are the chief causes of its recent inefficiency, and what is called for by the voice of the nation and is sure to have the nation’s favor and support, our readers may not need many words of ours to suggest.”

“I Never Knew how to Tell Time by the Clock”

For a poet and thinker obsessed with time, Dickinson had an awkward beginning with the practice of it. In a letter Thomas Higginson sent to his wife about his visit with Dickinson on August 16, 1870, he included this anecdote. Among the stories Dickinson shared, she told him:

I never knew how to tell the time by the clock until I was 15. My father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know. (L 342b).

Clearly, telling time by the clock was an important aspect of Dickinson's father’s tutelage, as, no doubt, was the virtue of punctuality. (Did lawyers think in terms of billable hours back then?) But it didn’t stick. It is interesting to speculate just how the teenaged Dickinson learned to read clocks.

We know Dickinson absorbed religious concepts of time and eternity from her Protestant upbringing but she did not seem to take comfort in them. In 1848, she wrote to her good friend Abiah Root:

Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you? … it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity.(L 23).

According to scholars, aspects of the religious notion of time and eternity shaped what Georges Poulet, in an essay form 1956, diagnoses as Dickinson's dilemma:

All her spiritual life and all her poetry are comprehended only in the determination given them by two initial moments, one of which is contradicted by the other, a moment in which one possesses eternity and a moment when one loses it.

Expanding on the ideas of Rebecca Patterson, who explored Dickinson’s spatial imagery of the four cardinal points of the compass, Barton Levi St. Armand contends that Dickinson solved this dilemma by imagining time not as a clock but as a “sundial” and by organizing “very personal and much more elaborate correspondences” in relation to the four major corners of the dial into a schema he calls Dickinson’s “mystic day,” which we discussed earlier in our post on Spring:

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

About the dilemma posed by time and eternity, St. Armand argued,

The mystic day was a means of solving this dilemma by merging these two moments and collapsing time into eternity, though such a method of necessity brought with it infinite agony or infinite ecstasy, depending on one’s placement in the houses of her transcendence.

As this handy chart illustrates,  the four directions correspond to the two solstices (noon, midnight) and two equinoxes (sunrise, sunset), as well as the human cycle of growth, the Christian cycle of Christ’s life, the spiritual and religious cycles of faith, the four seasons, colors, psychology, flowers, geography and illumination. The effects of the sun, its light and its position in the sky, play a major role in this “mystic day.” The sun itself comes to represent a lover-deity-Master-Christ-figure St. Armand calls “Phoebus,” another name for the Greek god Apollo, charged with managing the sun's movement in the sky. With this chart, St. Armand extracts what he dubs Dickinson’s “solar myth” or “The Romance of Daisy and Phoebus” from the Master letters and poetry, which he calls

the most powerful inner fact in the evolution of Dickinson’s sensibility.

But perhaps this myth and chart are a bit too “handy” and link correspondences too neatly, preventing us from seeing and hearing the complications not bound by this heterosexual metanarrative. The important point this theory makes is to link Dickinson’s notion of time with notions of space, geography, psychology and experiences of love and passion (object undisclosed).

In her innovative approach from the perspective of cognitive linguistics, Margaret Freeman takes this even further. She argues, first, that metaphor-making is not unique to poets but is how we all understand the world. Second, that Dickinson rejected the dominant metaphor of her religious background, that “LIFE IS A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME,” replacing it with a metaphor garnered from the latest scientific discoveries of her day, that “LIFE IS A VOYAGE IN SPACE.” Image clusters related to “path” and “cycle” and “Air as Sea” reflect

a physically embodied world and create Dickinson’s conceptual universe.

It is, perhaps, this embodied intensity that leads Peggy O’Brien to declare:

There is no poet … who lives more on the edge of every single second than Emily Dickinson: “Each Second is the last” (F927). She seems determined in poem after poem to ground the soaring statement “Forever – is composed of Nows –” (F690) in a single, solid now.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Zoë Pollak

As Professor Schweitzer notes, the first posthumously-published volumes of Dickinson divide the poetry into four themes: “Life,” “Love,” “Nature,” and “Time and Eternity.” It’s easy to understand why editors Thomas Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd took it upon themselves to offer Dickinson’s first readers a framework with which to approach such a vast archive. What’s curious is the logic that led the pair to come up with divisions like “Life” and “Nature” given the extent to which such broad categories overlap. How did they determine whether a poem with a first line like, say, “My life closed twice before it’s close –” (F1773A) would fall under “Life” or get tucked into “Time and Eternity”?

We’d be hard-pressed to find a speaker in Dickinson who isn’t on some level struggling with how to conceive of time, of how to position him or herself both within and outside of its passage. Given that Dickinson’s thought experiments often contradict each other metaphysically both within and across poems (“Eternity” can be simultaneously “ample” and “quick enough” [F352B], and the same mechanism that “expands” time in one stanza “contracts” it in the next [F833A]), Higginson and Todd’s impulse to yoke time with eternity and restrict them to a single category might seem presumptuous. By cordoning off this category to the end of the volume, the editors supply us with an architecture that’s implicitly exegetical—they physically structure our encounter with “Time” in Dickinson, and curate the way we approach it.

And yet their headings, as capacious as they are reductive, actually manage to preserve and recreate the paradoxes that inhere in many of the poet’s compositions. On one hand, if “Life” leads to “Eternity,” we are faced with the traditional Protestant telos that several of this week’s critics argue Dickinson resists (that is, the Calvinist notion that “‘life is a journey through time,’ which ends at death, a gate to Heaven and immortality or Hell and an eternity of pain”). Yet at the same time (so to speak), Higginson and Todd’s design formally—if not ideologically—pushes against this very framework: how can life be a journey through time if the two literally stand at opposite ends of Poems? Ironically, what allows the editors to sustain this dialectic is their having assimilated “Time and Eternity” into one heading, a merging which would have most likely alarmed John Calvin and Dickinson alike.

I’d imagine that many of us probably find specious the intimation that only some of Dickinson’s poetry is steeped in time. To take this immeasurable medium and compress it into a single region within the span of the poet’s oeuvre demands the bravado of a Marvellian lover. For that matter, it would be a mistake to try and disentangle Dickinson’s treatment of time from her engagement with equally sprawling and diffuse concepts like “space, geography, psychology,” as Professor Schweitzer reminds us. Margaret Freeman suggests that Dickinson

replaced the standard religious teaching about time and eternity with the metaphor of “life is a voyage through space,” non-linear imagery [Dickinson] gleaned from her readings in the new sciences that “saw space as a vast sea, with the planets as boats, circling in sweeps around the sun.”

Despite this renegade move, Dickinson is clearly in conversation with the writers and thinkers around her when she confirms time and space as inseparable. We don’t require the parlance of contemporary physics to recognize that these dimensions exist on a continuum; we need only refer to a sonnet of Shakespeare or song of Donne to realize that it’s impossible to fathom—let alone portray—one medium without enlisting the aid of the other. (How, for instance, can we picture an object moving in space other than through a period of time, and how can we imagine time’s trajectory without conjuring a path in space?)

As Peggy O’Brien puts it, Dickinson “makes [time] palpable and pressing” to allow herself and her readers “to inhabit this metaphysical plane”:

Time feels so vast that were it not
For an Eternity –
I fear me this Circumference
Engross my Finity – (F858A)

So marvels one of Dickinson’s speakers, transmuting what would otherwise be abstract geometrical proportions into ripples, so that even as circle swallows circle, none of the water disappears. The concept of time as a stream is easily as old as Heraclitus, and made memorable by contemporaries of Dickinson’s like Thoreau. What Dickinson does differently is to thicken time into a substance not in order to crystalize it into something hard like a bead of amber or her hermetically palindromic “noon,” but rather to seize upon time as motion, to vivify time’s presence by emphasizing its evanescence. Summer may lapse away “As imperceptibly as Grief” (F935B), but that lapse leaves “A Quietness distilled.” And while in one poem “too happy Time dissolves / itself / And leaves no remnant by – ” (F1182A), in another we get closer to grasping “Forever” when we let “months dissolve in further / Months” (F690A).

Dissolves and distillations: there’s something about conceiving of time as a substance changing states that makes it feel tangible. I doubt we’d be half as receptive to sunsets if we could count on the sky’s amethysts and golds not to metamorphose into some other color each time we looked away; alterations are what sharpen our senses enough to detect them in the first place. After all, alchemists, those other masters of dissolving and distilling, gave their days to meting and measuring out transformations precisely to secure the eternal.

bio: Zoë Pollak is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University working in 19th-century American literature and is particularly interested in writers who alternate between poetic and essayistic forms. She graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley in 2014, and received an M.St. in English from the University of Oxford in 2016, where she focused on early 20th-century American poetry.


Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, 23.

O’Brien, Peggy. “Telling the Time with Emily Dickinson.” Massachusetts Review 55. 3 September 2014:468-79, 470.

Harper's Monthly, November 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
December 2, 1862
Springfield Republican, November 29, 1862


Freeman, Margaret. “Metaphor Making Meaning: Dickinson’s Conceptual Universe.” Journal of Pragmatics 24 (1995): 643-666, 643.

O’Brien, Peggy. “Telling the Time with Emily Dickinson.” Massachusetts Review 55. 3 September 2014:468-79, 469.

Poulet, Georges. Studies in Human Time. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970, 346.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 81-82, 277-78, 317.

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November 19-25, 1862: Aftermath

Thanksgiving 1862 was for many the aftermath of the bloodiest autumn on record. Dickinson is a poet for this “posterior” moment of trauma, a poet of “That after Horror,” “living in the aftermath.” This week, we explore Dickinson’s poetry of aftermath to discern its parameters and driving energy, to see what possibly comes “after”.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Katrina Dzyak

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

As we approach the season of Thanksgiving, we often look back at what and who we have to give thanks for. During this week in 1862, The Springfield Republican noted the advent of Thanksgiving in New England but found very little to rejoice in. Rather, it issued this dire warning:

In this hour of plenty we may discern the skeleton finger of want [brought on by the Civil War, whose] heavy burden of debt, scarcity, and high prices are but just beginning to be felt,

and would be felt by the neediest first. The only cause for rejoicing it could find was that “our community” does not yet feel the economic deprivations caused by the War. But by many accounts, people were already living emotionally and spiritually in the aftermath of the bloodiest autumn on record.

Many readers consider Dickinson to a poet particularly suited for this “posterior” moment of trauma, a poet of “That after Horror,” “living in the aftermath.” Scholar David Porter argues that

Dickinson claimed the aftermath as her special territory. It was as much her fecund ground as Manhattan was Whitman’s or Paterson was Williams’s. In that realm of least promise she found the performing imagination.

Dickinson's poetry gives unique and unsettling voice to what happens after particular experiences or crises, and how a shattered soul or mind or life manages to go on—or not. We find that “aftermath” has several profound and different meanings in her canon of work: the aftermath of personal emotional crisis, the aftermath of a loss of faith, the aftermath of battles and death tolls of the Civil War. In some way, Dickinson’s entire being as a poet occupies the space of aftermath as her major body of work was only discovered and subsequently published after her death. This week, we explore Dickinson’s poetry of aftermath to discern its parameters and driving energy, to see what possibly comes “after.”

“The Skeleton Finger of Want”

Springfield Republican, November 22, 1862

General Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881)
General Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881)

Progress of the War, page 1
“With scarcely a ripple of agitation and not the slightest factious demonstration, the army and the people have acquiesced in the changes of command in the army of Virginia, and Gen. Burnside has commenced his administration by a change of base from Alexandria to Fredericksburg. This indicates that there is a real purpose to march at Richmond.”

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“There is nothing particularly new in regard to the revolution in Greece. King Otto has no intention of trying to obtain the reins of government again and has retired with all the dignity possible to one in his position. The larger part of the insurgents has declared in favor of a monarchical form of government, but there is a strong party in favor of a republic, formed in connection with some of the nearest Turkish provinces. Russia is said to favor the latter plan, but it is not expected the other European governments will consent to it, and the great question now is, who shall be the next king.”

A Cheap Enjoyment, page 2
“None of us can afford to be miserable, or even anxious and desponding. Enjoyment is a necessity of healthful life, and one that in the sternest of times we can by no means spare. Yet we may well dispense with costly pleasures. During the coming winter many of us will be content to eat plainer food and wear cheaper clothing than in more prosperous years, and we may find that the retrenchment brings no loss of health or comfort. So too our amusements may be chosen with regard to economy and lose no portion of their zest.”

Cupping set, London, England, 1860-1875
Cupping set, London, England, 1860-1875

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“The present is an age of words rather than thoughts. Original thoughts are very rare; original expressions are very common. Nothing is easier than to say that the sky is a cupping-glass and battle-fields are the spots where the blood is drawn. There is no thought in this, for it means nothing; it is only a metaphorical way of saying that men bleed beneath the sky, a statement with which we are all sufficiently familiar, although we have never yet met it in the disguise of a surgical trope. The greater part of modern poetry and the weaker part of its prose consists in clothing common-place ideas in an outlandish garb of words.”

Hampshire Gazette, November 25, 1862

Original Poetry, page 1 [Found under the title “October” in Beautiful Poetry. A Selection of the choicest of the Present and the Past, for 1857, selected by the editors of The Critic, London Literary Journal, London: Critic Office, 1857. p 176, with the note: Taken from The Farmer’s Almanac, where it appeared anonymously.] 

Individualism, page 1
“Every man is individually responsible to God for his actions. He is born apart, he lives apart, apart he dies; and at the judgment-seat of Christ, for himself, he stands or falls. Man is a distinct being, and consequently cannot shift his responsibility. He thinks for himself, chooses for himself, and for himself he acts. Man is swayed by influences; but no matter how great those influences may be which prompt him to action, ever and anon those acts are regarded as his own, and for them he is accountable to the Almighty God.”

Thanksgiving, page 2
“We stand at the threshold of a long and dreary winter. The coming of the inclement season is fitly ushered in by our annual Thanksgiving. On Thursday next we celebrate this New England anniversary with 18 of our sister states. In this hour of plenty we may discern the skeleton finger of want. The civil war that has been raging for the past eighteen months is pressing harder and harder upon us. Its heavy burden of debt, scarcity, and high prices are but just beginning to be felt. While we shudder at the immediate future, we can but rejoice that so much of competence has been spared to our community, that we are able to meet with comparative indifference the grievous load that has been forced upon us.”

Atlantic Monthly, November 1862

“Wild Apples” by Henry David Thoreau

Early apples begin to be ripe about the first of August; but I think that none of them are so good to eat as some to smell. One is worth more to scent your hand-kerchief with than any perfume which they sell in the shops. The fragrance of some fruits is not to be forgotten, along with that of flowers. … There is thus about all natural products a certain volatile and ethereal quality which represents their highest value, and which cannot be vulgarized, or bought and sold. No mortal has ever enjoyed the perfect flavor of any fruit, and only the god-like among men begin to taste its ambrosial qualities. For nectar and ambrosia are only those fine flavors of every earthly fruit which our coarse palates fail to perceive,—just as we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing it. …

Going up the side of a cliff about the first of November, I saw a vigorous young apple-tree, which, planted by birds or cows, had shot up amid the rocks and open woods there, and had now much fruit on it, uninjured by the frosts, when all cultivated apples were gathered. It was a rank wild growth, with many green leaves on it still, and made an impression of thorniness. The fruit was hard and green, but looked as if it would be palatable in the winter. Some was dangling, on the twigs, but more half-buried in the wet leaves under the tree, or rolled far down the hill amid the rocks. The owner knows nothing of it. … Most fruits which we prize and use depend entirely on our care. Corn and grain, potatoes, peaches, melons, etc., depend altogether on our planting; but the apple emulates man's independence and enterprise.

“What is to be is best descried / When it has also been–”

Dickinson’s special relationship to aftermath and trauma has long been acknowledged by readers and explored by scholars. For example, probably her best-known poem on this theme, “After great pain, a formal feelings comes–” (F372, J342), dated to 1862, manages to describe this psychic phenomenon with uncanny exactitude but does so in imagery that speaks universally about many kinds of pain. Critic Robert Weisbuch observes that Dickinson’s many poems about the aftereffects of this kind of trauma

say precisely nothing about Dickinson’s unique experience. But they do afford an extraordinary comfort precisely because different people can bring their trouble to them.

Some readers, though, offer more specific speculations about Dickinson’s landscape of aftermath. For example, Chloe Marnin reads Dickinson’s suite of volcano poems, explored in detail in an earlier post, as a poetic account of the “aftermath of human emotions” due to repression. There is evidence that Dickinson did not communicate her deepest feelings and experiences to her family. In a poem dated to 1877 and addressed to “Katie,” Catherine Scott Anthon, who visited Amherst that year, Dickinson wrote:

I shall not
murmur if at last
The ones I loved
Permission have
to understand
For what I shunned
them so –
Divulging it would rest my Heart
But it would
ravage their's –
Why, Katie, Treason
has a Voice –
But mine – dispels -
in Tears. (F 1429, J1410)

Labeling the telling of the source of her pain as “Treason,” a profound betrayal of some family trust or sense of loyalty, suggests the enormity of the pressure Dickinson felt to remain silent.

Physician Isabel Legarda picks up on imagery of this sort, citing a study that argued that Dickinson, as well as other notable historical figures,

developed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of repeated potentially traumatizing events.

Rejecting the airbrushed “myth” of the woman in white and even contemporary versions of Dickinson that gloss over the darkness in her work, Legarda lists over 50 poems in which she finds evidence of trauma, including some kind of sexual assault. She argues that this “truth,” although impossible to prove, is important for readers, and perhaps even more so in the age of the #MeToo movement.

Other scholars see the trauma Dickinson anatomizes as brought on by the horror of the Civil War. David C. Ward, for example, calls Dickinson, along with contemporary poet Walt Whitman, “the great American poets of the Aftermath of the Civil War:”

Dickinson shows us the aftermath and the regret not only for the loss of life but of what war does to the living. Dickinson and Whitman show us two ways of working through the problem of how to mourn and how to gauge the effect that the war was having on Americans.

Ward references the poem “My triumph lasted till the drums” (F1212, J1227)  dated 1872, which contains perhaps Dickinson's most concise description of her theory or practice of aftermath:

My Triumph lasted
till the Drums
Had left the Dead
And then I dropped
my Victory
And chastened stole
To where the
finished Faces
Conclusion turned
on me
And then I hated
And wished myself
were They.

What is to be is
best descried
When it has also been -
Could Prospect
taste of Retrospect
The Tyrannies of
Were Tenderer,
The Transitive
toward –
A Bayonet's contrition

Is nothing to
the Dead -

Richard Brantley explains what Vivian Pollak labels Dickinson’s “post-experiential perspective” in her poems of “aftermath” through her intellectual and spiritual influences. Brantley places Dickinson in conversation with philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Methodist leader Charles Wesley (1707-1788) through the emotional and intellectual tutelage of the Rev. Charles Wadsworth (1814-1882), a man Dickinson dubbed “My Clergyman.” Brantley argues that Wadsworth opened Dickinson to the philosophy, technology and science of her day, which emphasized empiricism, experimentation and, particularly, experience. This “rhetoric of sensation,” as Mary Lee Stephenson Huffer calls it, led Dickinson to the “Despairing Hope” that categorizes her unique poetry of “aftermath.”

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Katrina Dzyak

Even more so than she is considered a poet of Death and Loss, Emily Dickinson, critics claim, is the poet of After: Aftermath, Afterward, Thereafter. Loss entails the fact of After, but, for Dickinson, After is not necessarily at or equal to a loss, lacking, it is not a gutted or inert space, inarticulate and inarticulable, absent of a presence, a being, or some vitality that once was. For Dickinson, After is the beginning, not as in re-generation, but generation itself and an amplified one. After is where Life begins, which is to say that for Dickinson, Loss and After beget Life and what is thought to be alive before a Loss and, thus, before an After, is in fact only posing as such.

But Dickinson does not make this claim purely metaphorically. Her engagement with 18th and 19th century theories from natural science, biology, and the philosophy of science, as they emerged as disciplines during her lifetime, steer her towards this troubling and liberating claim that in Loss, Death, separation, and After, there is Life, by putting the biological body made of cells and organs at the fore of her thinking and at the fore of her systemic investigation in the matter, conceptual and material, of what comes after Loss, when Loss means separation and a divided self.

Dickinson’s poem, “I breathed enough to take the Trick – ” (F308), dated to 1862, guides us through this formula and the procedure Dickinson’s speaker undergoes and follows to make clear how Life is generated by the Loss, separation, division of something that creates an Aftermath to a Before. The poem’s first line, “I breathed enough to take the Trick – ,” immediately establishes a threshold, a dividing line. “I breathed enough,” repurposes what is most fundamental and necessary to life, breathing, as not a question of all or nothing, breathing or not breathing, Life or Death, but a question of limits, introducing breath and, thus, life and, thus, death, as spread over a spectrum and existing in gradations. The question, How much breath is enough? asks us to consider how we might get by with less or how it might be possible for breath to exist in or as excess.

Insofar as “enough” means minimum, “enough” motions more so towards the possibility of not enough, towards lack, Loss, Death, than it does towards an excessive energy or towards a bounding vitality. How much breath is enough for what? The line offers “to take the Trick – ,” which could be read as to grab at the Trick, to possesses the Trick, to move the Trick and, thus, to make the Trick come, come closer, come into being, come sexually, reproductively, generatively. Regardless, “to take the Trick -”, means we will never know the inflection of “take,” because we will never know where the Trick was taken, how it was taken, where it was taken. What we know is that the threshold of “enough” takes “the Trick” and makes it different, puts it differently, transitions it from Before to After.

The next line, “And now, removed from Air -,” repeats the poem’s preoccupation with division and the here, there, Before, After times and spaces it works between and through. “And now” makes present that we are “now” After, that there was a Before that is not now, “now.” “And now, removed from Air” further establishes a movement away from here or Before to an elsewhere that is After. At first, “removed from Air” suggests Death, only Death would be something more like Air removed. “Removed from Air,” insofar as “Air” denotes what would be familiar, what would, generally be Earth, moves us either celestially or molecularly, where “Air” is either absent, in intergalactic orbit, or unformed, absent as a unified substance within or as matter that relies on it to live, absent within us, who “take” it from outside, who breathe it in and make it part of us, make it generate us.

At either the cosmic or molecular level, then, “I,” “removed from Air – ” “simulate the Breath, so well – ,” which is to say that in this unearthly, unfamiliar space that is a legacy of the division that made it distinct, an After to the Before of life on Earth as the speaker knows it, “I simulate the Breath,” or pretend to breathe, “so well – ,” well “enough” to “Trick” “That One” of the next line. “I” simulate “the Breath,” or unity, homogeneity, the convergence of parts made by the mixture “Air,” that “I” breathe only what “I” need and “Trick” “That One,” or those who see not the mixture, parts, divisions between self and “Air” that make “That One” them, but who see merely “That One” as already “quite” surely its own package and matter, their own self as blended and contained, not part of a Before “Air” or After “Air” complex.

Dalton's Law. credit: Max Dodge
Dalton's Law. credit: Max Dodge

A dedicated sleuth of all vogue academic topics at the time, indicated by her library and the criticism contained in her letter correspondences, Dickinson here in F308 works out the ways a substance, “Air,” that is “That One” thing that appears truly homogeneous, “That One” thing that we need to preserve our own boundaries, to remain contained as one, as ourselves, alive, “Air,” is, in fact, according to 19th-century scientists John Dalton’s Dalton’s Law,  a mixture, an unsteady substance made of components whose relations are brokered by unreliable and dizzying particles unseen and, as of then, still only newly known. With this knowledge in mind, Dickinson, or her speaker, sensitive to the circulating substances within, Tricks herself or her audience, her community, into seeing her, this “I,” as indeed “One,” “That One,” who is not only homogeneous, contained, and singular, but “That One” in particular, that distinct, though whole, identity, the “I” who “breathed.”

But the speaker knows that there is a limit, a threshold to the stability of “That One,” where the exchange between particles that mix to make “Air” to sustain Life, relies necessarily on Loss, lost exchanges, lost relations, lost unity, unfulfilled mixtures, division, and its After. Within that loss, “The Lungs,” for example, “are stirless -, ” which is to say that they remain unstirred, or unmixed, not “That One” unified matter that accepts a united “Air” that drives life, but a space where “Air” has to and might fail to enter and be mixed into Life, not automatically part of the Life of the body of “The Lungs.” When the mixture of “Air” is unstirred in the cosmic space, or in the molecular space, or in “The Lungs,” where “Air” is still only coming into being as Life by discrete and disparate particles that might not always promise to mix, Life remains “stirless,” a spread of particles.

In F308, “The Lungs” further wait, “stirless,” because forever already divided as one and the other. Thus, we “must descend / Among the cunning cells – / And touch the Pantomime – Himself.” In other words, we must “descend” to or enter what is “stirless,” this division, enter the Under World, enter Death, what seems to be Death by or as this division, where we find “the cunning cells – ,” the separated and distinct bodies that have not mixed, joined, solidified into recognizable matter. There, we might try to mix the cells together, to push them into unity, to push Death back over the threshold and into Life. These efforts result only in our recognizing unity as Pantomime, an ebullient attempt to mime Life as singular. Greeting “the cunning cells,” we see that they “Trick” us, that they simultaneously separate and divide, self-combust, scattering, and generate, building. That is, in crossing the threshold that is their singularity, they divide, and in dividing, they make the particles mix, congregate and stir together to homogenize and find, as Air and as Body, a Self, “That One.” Cells are simultaneously Before and After.

Virchow's illustrations of cell division
Virchow's illustrations of cell division

Growing awareness since 1835, when German Botanist Hugo von Mohl observed dividing and expanding cells under a microscope, of these individuated compartments, bodies, that compete and congeal to form matter, culminates in widespread acceptance by the mid-19th-century among transatlantic science communities that omnis cellula ex cellula, all cells come from cells, the subtitle of German Physician Rudolg Virchow’s 1858 Die Cellularpathologie (Cellular Pathology) published in English in 1860. “That One” life that is, now we know, “Pantomime,” posing as “One” life, F308 insists, is only the result of “cunning cells,” whose division makes something that is not “That One,” but that is always “stirless” because of a constant flow of new materials within and into a body. Division and this flow further stimulate sensation, sensation that registered Life.

“How numb, the Bellows feels!,” the speaker exclaims, when pushing “Air” through a bag, compressing it in a “Bellows,” or through “The Lungs.” Life, sensation that “feels!,” emerges at the moment of estrangement, of division, when “Air” leaves the body in an exhale. Then, a “Himself,” any self, comes to the fore still “numb" from the recent division, the recent loss of “That One,” a recent touch of Death as singularity, but still as one who “feels!” The Aftermath of this division, brought on by the exhale, sets us up again for “I breathed enough,” the inhale that Tricks us once more into accepting that we are “That One.” But, the inhale-exhale divide, F308 explains, while it brings Life precariously close to Death at every breath, precariously close to numbness, insofar as this division, in and out, is paralleled by the “cunning cells,” when we greet these cellular particles who divide and multiply, we might lose our belief in “That One” and recognize Life as the After of Loss or division, indeed, of exhale but, more simply, of cell division.


Bio: Katrina Dzyak is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She studies Early & Nineteenth Century American Literature and literatures of the Atlantic World. Her research interests include the history of Natural Science; the Medical Humanities; Ethnicity, Race, and Indigenous Studies; and Archive theory.


Porter, David. Dickinson: The Modern Idiom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981: 24.

Atlantic Monthly, November 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
November 25, 1862
Springfield Republican, November 22, 1862

Huffer, Mary Lee Stephenson. Emily Dickinson's experiential poetics and Rev. Dr. Charles Wadsworth's rhetoric of sensation: the intellectual friendship between the poet and a pastor. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.

Legarda, Isabel. “Emily Dickinson’s Legacy is Incomplete without Discussing Trauma.”The Establishment. September 8, 2017

Marnin, Chloe. “The Imagery of Volcanoes in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry:
The Psychology and Aftermath of Emotional Repression.” May 10, 2016.

Pollak, Vivian. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984, 202-03.

Ward, David C. “Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and the War That Changed Poetry, Forever.” August 14, 2013

Weisbuch, Robert. “Prisming Dickinson; or Gathering Paradise by Letting Go.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Eds. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998: 197-223, 217.

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November 12-18, 1862: Crucifixion

This week in 1862 several items appeared in the newspapers and periodicals on the theme of suffering and sacrifice, which frame our exploration of a cluster of poems from this period in Dickinson’s life that use imagery of the Crucifixion.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Sheila Byers and Jennifer Leader

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

This week in 1862 several items appeared in the newspapers and periodicals on the theme of suffering and sacrifice. Not surprising subjects during wartime, they frame our exploration of a cluster of poems from this period in Dickinson’s life that use imagery of the Crucifixion to explore  suffering and sacrifice.

This week, the Springfield Republican published a poem titled “The Sweetest Death” that extols the glory of giving one’s life for one’s “fatherland” and the entanglement of sacrifice and love. This was a common refrain in poetry and prose of this era, which justified the bloody battles of the Civil War as a necessary “purging” of the national sin of slavery.

Right on cue, Ralph Waldo Emerson published an encomium on President Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly. In his praise of the president, Emerson specifically remarks:

This act makes that the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain.

Suggesting that without a momentous paradigm-shift in national consciousness and national policy, the deaths of so many soldiers and civilians might, indeed, have been sacrificed for nothing.

Readers often regard Dickinson’s allusions to the Crucifixion as more of an exploration of personal and psychic suffering than part of a religious or devotional tradition. Clustering in the months after she experienced her great “Terror,” poems with this imagery resonate both personally and religiously, and as so much in Dickinson’s writing during this period, take on an extra valence of meaning in the light of the war’s onslaught of suffering and loss.

“Life in America had Lost Much of its Attraction”

Springfield Republican, November 15, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1

President Lincoln and General McClellan meeting after Antietam
President Lincoln and General McClellan meeting after Antietam

“The event of the week has been the removal of Gen. McClellan from the command of the army in Virginia, and the substitution of Gen. Burnside in his place. The special reasons for the act are not known, but a letter of Gen. Halleck to Secretary Stanton, indiscreetly given to the newspapers, reveals the fact that Gen. McClellan delayed to move into Virginia for nearly three weeks after he had received positive orders to do so, and Gen. Halleck insists that the excuse that the army was not properly supplied with clothing is insufficient. Doubtless the president had other reasons, which will be made public at a suitable time, and which will show that the pledge given to McClellan, when he was implored to resume the command and protect Washington and drive back the rebel invaders, for the campaign should not be interfered with, has not been violated in spirit if it was in letter.”

The Southern Church and Slavery, page 4
“The Richmond Christian Advocate proposes a convention of the Christian churches of all denominations at the South to unite in a formal solemn testimony in vindication of their position in the sanguinary conflict which the federal conflict is waging against them. It wants such a testimony to demonstrate to their enemies and to the world that the southern churches are a unit in their unalterable resolution to maintain the independence of the confederacy, and defend their conservative and scriptural principles on the slavery question.”

Original Poetry, page 6 "The Sweetest Death"
[described in The Northern Monthly: A Magazine of Original Literature and Military Affairs, vol. 1. Ed. Edward P. Weston. Portland: Bailey and Noyes, 1864, 249 as “From the German of Wolfgang Mühler.”]

"The Sweetest Death"

Hampshire Gazette, November 18, 1862

True Felicity, page 1
“If men did not know what felicity dwells in the cottage of a virtuous poor man—how sound he sleeps, how quiet his breast, how composed his mind, how free from care, how easy his provision, how healthy his morning, how sober his night, how moist his mouth, how joyful his heart—they would never admire the noises, the diseases, the throng of passions, and the violence of unnatural appetites, that fit the houses of the luxurious and the hearts of the ambitious.”

Atlantic Monthly, November 1862

“The President’s [Emancipation] Proclamation,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Better is virtue in the sovereign than plenty in the season," say the Chinese. 'T is wonderful what power is, and how ill it is used, and how its ill use makes life mean, and the sunshine dark. Life in America had lost much of its attraction in the later years. The virtues of a good magistrate undo a world of mischief, and, because Nature works with rectitude, seem vastly more potent than the acts of bad governors, which are ever tempered by the good-nature in the people, and the incessant resistance which fraud and violence encounter. The acts of good governors work at a geometrical ratio, as one midsummer day seems to repair the damage of a year of war. …

This act makes that the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain. It makes a victory of our defeats. Our hurts are healed; the health of the nation is repaired. With a victory like this, we can stand many disasters. It does not promise the redemption of the black race: that lies not with us: but it relieves it of our opposition. The President by this act has paroled all the slaves in America; they will no more fight against us; and it relieves our race once for all of its crime and false position. The first condition of success is secured in putting ourselves right. We have recovered ourselves from our false position, and planted ourselves on a law of Nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

“The Man of Sorrow”

Though Dickinson came of age at a time when scientific thinking seriously challenged earlier religious foundations, she was, as Shira Wolosky argues, saturated in the Calvinist beliefs of her ancestors and family members, who embraced a

biblical and providential vision, encoding events in nature, history, and the self in an overarching divine pattern. … This divine order was specifically revealed through biblical pattern, focused on the life of Christ.

Thomas von KempenThe devotional practice Christians called “the imitation of Christ” has a long tradition. A fifteenth-century German monk named Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) wrote a meditation on the spiritual life called Imitatio Christi, in which he urged readers to imitate Jesus and live a life of love and service. The Dickinson library contained two editions in English translation; it was apparently a favorite of Dickinson’s.

Dickinson wrote so many poems about the life of Jesus Christ all through her career that Dorothy Oberhaus argues they “form something like a nineteenth-century American Gospel.” By doing so, Oberhaus believes that Dickinson “stresses the Gospels’ contemporary relevance,” and furthermore, the

deep structure of her Gospel poem places them in the poetic tradition of Christian devotion, a tradition extending from the “Dream of the Rood” and Pearl poets, through the medieval lyricists, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, and Hopkins, to Eliot and Auden in our own day.

Rather than highlight the Resurrection and promise of salvation, as many of these religious writers did, however, Dickinson fastened on the image of the suffering and abandoned Jesus of the Crucifixion, a man experiencing human death. The question why a beneficent and omnipotent God allows human suffering resonated powerfully with the public events and discussions of the day.

References to Jesus of the Cross appear in Dickinson early letters, as in this description from May 7 and 17, 1850 sent to her friend Abiah Root about the death of another friend’s father:

What a beautiful mourner is her sister, looking so crushed, and heart-broken, yet never complaining, or murmuring, and waiting herself so patiently! She reminds me of suffering Christ, bowed down with her weight of agony, yet smiling at terrible will. “Where the weary are at rest” these mourners all make me think of – in the sweet still grave. When shall it call us? (L36)

“Job's Tormentors” from William Blake's Illustrations for the Book of Job, 1792

The quotation echoes the Book of Job, considered a precursor of Jesus’s passion story, in which the afflicted man curses the day of his birth and calls for death, for “there the weary be at rest” (3:17). And while in this passage Dickinson strikes a naïve and romanticized note, Linda Freeman observes

that she was beginning, even at nineteen, to comprehend the philosophical meaning of the cross and her imagination was struck by the idea that Calvary was a test of Christ’s humanity–his patience, his agony, his suffering and his subservience to the divine will of the father.

Still, this letter is a far cry from the despairing pain of Dickinson’s later poetic invocations of Calvary, the hill on which Jesus was crucified, as we will see in the poetry section. Patrick Keane notes that in her “orthodox moods,” Dickinson depicts Jesus conventionally, as “the divine Son of Jehovah” but “her Jesus is far more often the human Sufferer admired by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche,” modern philosophers who rejected religious systems of belief but admired Jesus. In a letter late in her life, Dickinson explained this focus to Mrs. Henry Hills:

When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is “acquainted with Grief,” we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own. (L932)

But, as Keane notes, Dickinson understands Jesus’s humanity even more radically, and this was the source of its powerful hold on her imagination. Writing to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1877, she said:

To be human is more than to be divine, for when Christ was divine, he was uncontented till he had been human.(L519)

Keane offers as evidence a poem dated 1882, in which Dickinson seems to say that even the Resurrection was “testimony to the humanity of Jesus:”

Obtaining but
our own extent
In whatsoever
Realm –
'Twas Christ's
own personal
That bore him
from the Tomb – (F1573, J1543)

Dickinson’s adaptation of a part of the ancient devotional practice called “imitatio Christi” (imitation of Christ) allowed her to explore the nature of God, the realm of suffering and renunciation, the limits of “fallen” human language, and the burden of the body and the natural world.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Sheila Byers

Calvary offers an opportunity to think about the complicated relationships between speaker and setting and internal and external that occur in Dickinson’s poems. Calvary is a place, a location in which a person can stand surrounded by a specific environment. It is also a site, a location known not as the physical place in the world that its name indicates, but as the setting in which the crucifixion occurred.

When Dickinson talks about the crucifixion, she is interested not only in the event with its spiritual or personal meanings, but also in the place that is the container to that event, its physical and geographical surroundings. But if the word Calvary means a hill outside Jerusalem, it also means “skull,” the name deriving from either the shape of the hill or the objects found there. Calvary is both a place external to the person who stands in it and the bones internal to that person. It is container and contained.

Hill of Calvary
Hill of Calvary

For Dickinson, of course, it is also a metaphor. It is agony, woe, the suffering of Christ. Here the troubling of internal and external intensifies. In “I measure every grief I meet,” Calvary is something the speaker passes, something external that also refers to the internal feeling of grief. When the speaker passes, she feels “A piercing Comfort.” She is pierced, meaning something passes from outside to inside. With this action, Calvary, the external symbol of the speaker’s internal grief, crosses the line of division between speaker and environment, reentering the space of the internal. In this action, grief becomes comfort.

These dizzying reversals of internal and external lead back to the question discussed in this week’s post: In what sense does Dickinson internalize the meaning of the Crucifixion? Is Calvary a projection of the speaker’s grief onto Biblical structures? Or an attempt to draw the stories of scripture into a personalized space of understanding? Or is it, perhaps, both, simultaneously a hill and a skull?

Bio: Sheila Byers is a PhD student in the English Department at Columbia. She works on 19th century American literature with a focus on the intersections of literature, science, and philosophy.

Jennifer Leader

Why, then, do you fear to take up the cross when through it you can win a kingdom? In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is highest virtue, in the cross is perfect holiness. There is no salvation of soul nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross.

                                           — Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ

When we suffer—and suffer inconsolably—we desperately wish for something larger and redeeming to come from our losses, if not for ourselves, then for the sake of others. If some meaning and gain can be made of and from our pain, we reason, then perhaps, as Dickinson writes in one of her most anthologized poems, we “shall not live in vain” (F982, J919). And, while I don’t believe the majority of Dickinson’s crucifixion poems to be a conscious attempt on her part to participate in a tradition of Christian devotional works, perhaps her desire to find a redemptive purpose behind the tremendous suffering inherent to the human condition is why she borrowed this image so frequently.

Like most of the more than two hundred references to the Bible in her poetry, Dickinson’s poems featuring or at least pointing toward the crucifixion are at play on many levels at once—on the level of national and personal losses of the Civil War, as a shorthand for individual grief, psychic or romantic pain, and, occasionally, as purely or mostly spiritual trope. Chief among the uses Dickinson makes of the cross is as an image of renunciation, what she terms “a piercing Virtue,” “the Choosing / Against itself – / Itself to justify / Unto itself -” (F782, J745).

Sometimes this renunciation is connected to thwarted romantic love, as in the beautiful “There came a Day at Summer’s full” in which the lovers share a day of communion so pure that it rivals “Sacrament” and the future “Supper of the Lamb,” a consummation depicted in the Bible as taking place between God and his “Saints, / Where Resurrections – be -” (F325, J322). The poem’s communion ends with separation, however, and a sense that as “Each bound the Other’s Crucifix -,” their love will not be allowed to be expressed again until after the resurrection, when it will have been “Justified” by this, their self-renunciatory “Calvaries of Love.”

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Yet sometimes Dickinson’s lauding of renunciation makes me ask, “renunciation for what purpose?” I find that I agree with Joan Feit Diehl when she links this aspect of Dickinson’s writing to the Romantic movement and to the sense that suffering for its own sake gives an aesthetic and revelatory payoff; in this vein one could lay some of Dickinson’s poems alongside those of her contemporary Christina Rossetti and note more similarities than differences.

For me, this is where Dickinson’s use of the cross differs from the Christian devotional tradition: in the gospels, renunciation is a temporary means to an end, performed in the light of eternity for the sake of intimacy with a Savior, whereas in Dickinson’s poetry it is more frequently an end goal or fixed and final state; it is self-fulfilling rather than pointing away from self; the speaker’s story is not folded into a larger divine narrative as in “Dream of the Rood.” Instead, the lovers’ separations become dramatizations of making a virtue of a necessity, and individual existential suffering ends with the speaker crowning herself “The Queen of Calvary -” (F347, J348).

Dickinson seems to find it hard to poetically pair the grief of the cross with the once-and-future joy of the sort found in the Christian Scriptures (e.g. Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God”) and the Thomas à Kempis passage above (Heb. 12:2, KJV). Rather, Dickinson’s joys are in the natural world and the beloved human relationships she so cherishes. But perhaps this is why as a reader and a critic I have mostly shied away from Dickinson’s crucifixion references—Dickinson knew the cross demands an emotional response; it makes us look at it without turning away to numb ourselves; it makes us take an accounting of rather than deny or despise our own suffering and the suffering of others. These are emotional equations I’d rather not solve. This is the religion of Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe, putting sentiment and empathy to use to change their world.

Not, mind you, that Dickinson couldn’t write a profoundly—and orthodox—devotional poem when she wanted to. “Jesus! thy Crucifix” (F197, J225)  and “One crown that no one seeks” (F1759, J1735) are both cries of the heart in the Other-reverential spirit of what one might have found in her Congregational hymnal. But for me, the most interesting poems in which Dickinson chooses to participate in Christian tradition are the ones in which she makes use of the Protestant hermeneutics of typology, the practice of locating foreshadowings of Christ in the Hebrew Bible that are ultimately fulfilled in the Christian Scriptures.

This practice was extended by Jonathan Edwards into the wider text of the natural world and by Dickinson’s own nineteenth-century into such a broad trope that seminary textbooks cautioned new preachers against making too frequent use of what was becoming a hackneyed metaphor. Yet Dickinson frequently appropriated the structures of typology as a way to connect the material and temporal realm with the eternal and spiritual. In “One crucifixion is recorded – only-” (F670, J553) “Gethsemane” “is but a Province – in the Being’s Centre -,” and though the speaker finds that there are many “newer” and “nearer” crucifixions than that famous one, “Our Lord – indeed – made Compound Witness -.” As discussed earlier in “On Choosing the Poems,” Dickinson’s use of this last phrase is suggestive of interest on a loan (and, indeed, several of the poems in this section relay heavily on language emphasizing and contrasting the price of a life alongside the price of consumer goods).

Yet Dickinson’s term “Witness” is also remarkable. In A Kiss From Thermopylae: Emily Dickinson and Law, James Guthrie notes that Dickinson was frequently called upon by her lawyer father Edward to perform the legal function of signing as a witness to numerous document transactions he performed for clients. For Dickinson, then, the term “Witness” carried a weighty import. On the cross, Christ was serving as a “Witness” to two “Compound” parties in transaction with each other, the Heavenly father and the earthly children (and legal terms are used frequently both by the Apostle Paul in the Christian Scriptures and in the Covenant theology of the Reformed churches); by doubly being crucified and serving as “Witness” of it, he has created and inhabited an interstitial space allowing Heaven and earth to meet. “Gethsemane” is now “a Province – in the Being’s Centre–” that typologically references and is fulfilled in this moment on the Cross.

Indeed, the mirroring and “Compound”-edness of this poem puts me in mind of the “Compound Vision” and “Convex – and Concave Witness” of another typological poem referencing Christ’s death, “The Admirations – and Contempts – of time-” (F830, J906). Written in 1864, it seems a fitting (and Protestant) end of this meditation, leading “through an Open Tomb-.”

The Admirations – and Contempts – of time –
Show justest – through an Open Tomb -
The Dying – as it were a Hight
Reorganizes Estimate
And what We saw not
We distinguish clear -
And mostly – see not
What We saw before -

’Tis Compound Vision -
Light – enabling Light –
The Finite – furnished
With the Infinite -
Convex – and Concave Witness -
Back – toward Time -
And forward –
Toward the God of Him -

Thomas à Kempis. Imitation of Christ, ch. 12 par. 77. Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Guthrie, James R. A Kiss From Thermopylae: Emily Dickinson and Law. University of Massachusetts Press, 2015.

bio: Jennifer Leader is Professor of English at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California. She is the author of Knowing, Seeing, Being: Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore and the American Typological Tradition (2016). Most recently she has contributed essays on Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Marianne Moore to The Bible and Feminism: Remapping the Field (2017), Whitman/Dickinson: A Colloquy (2017), and Twenty-First Century Marianne Moore: Essays From a Critical Renaissance (2018).


Atlantic Monthly, November 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
November 18, 1862
Springfield Republican, November 15, 1862

Freedman, Linda. Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 140.

Keane, Patrick J. Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering. Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2008, 92-93.

Oberhaus, Dorothy. "'Tender Pioneer': Emily Dickinson's Poems on the Life of Christ." American Literature 59.3 October 1987: 341-58, 341.

Wolosky, Shira. “Public and Private in Dickinson’s War Poetry.” A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Vivian Pollak. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 103-131, 114,

Yin, Joanna. “The Imitation of Christ.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 158-59.

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November 5-11, 1862: Death

This week in our time is Veterans Day on November 11, an official holiday first known as Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I. It was then renamed in 1954 as a day to honor people who served and died in the US Armed Forces and seemed a good week to explore Dickinson’s poetry of death. This week, we explore how Dickinson borrows, adapts and often subverts many of her culture’s attitudes and formulas in her wide-ranging and often surprising treatments of death.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Naseer Hassan

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

In our time, November 11 is Veterans Day, an official holiday first known as Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I. It was then renamed in 1954 as a day to honor people who served in the US Armed Forces. It is a day to remember those who served and especially those who died. It seems a fitting week to explore Emily Dickinson’s many startling poems about death, written during a time of war. We also have a  special guest respondent, Iraqi poet and translator of Dickinson, Naseer Hassan, who has lived under the shadow of war and death for many years and finds consolation in Dickinson's words.

Dickinson wrote about death all through her life but many of her masterpieces cluster in the period of 1861-63, when the nation itself struggled to come to terms with the awful, mounting death toll of the war. Critics and readers agree that some of Dickinson’s greatest poems touch on death and the questions it raises: what is it and why is it? what does it feel like to die? how should we regard death? and especially, what happens after death?

Death touched Dickinson early in her life and frequently thereafter, affecting her deeply. Wendy Martin calculates that 31 of her friends and family died from tuberculosis during her lifetime. But she was not alone or idiosyncratic in her preoccupation. Puritan tradition has a long history of focusing on “making a good death,” and sentimental Victorian culture was obsessed with all the trappings of death, the stages of dying, the rituals of the deathbed and burial. This obsession was fed but also profoundly disrupted by the unprecedented carnage caused by the Civil War, as Drew Gilpin Faust demonstrates in her powerful study, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. This week, we explore how Dickinson borrows, adapts, and often subverts many of her culture’s attitudes and formulas in her wide-ranging and often surprising treatments of death.

“The Night is Murk, and the Stars are Dim”

The Springfield Republican, November 8, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The advance of the army of McClellan into Virginia goes on steadily and with a good degree of speed. But the news from the front is so limited, from motive of obvious military prudence, that we know only a part of what has been accomplished and can only conjecture the plan of the campaign. Gen. McClellan seems to be endeavoring to close all avenues of escape against the enemy, and it is believed at Washington that he is conducting the campaign with great sagacity and energy, and that he will win a great success without any such terrible sacrifice of life as has attended most of our battles in Virginia.” [Ed. Note: McClellan’s caution and failure to act would soon drive President Lincoln to relieve him of his command.]

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“The resignations of [M. Thouvenel, the French minister of foreign affairs, and M. Fould, the minister of finance] indicate a decided change in the policy of France toward Italy, and it is regarded as certain that the French will not evacuate Rome. The emperor of the French has lately become very pious, and all France looks on in amazement at the sudden ascendancy of the priests’ party.” [see The Second Italian War of Independence]

Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)
Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)

Souls Misplaced, page 6
“Mrs. Kirkland [Caroline Mathilda Stansbury Kirkland (1801-1864), an American writer]  writing of those men and women who seem to have got each other’s attributes—the men having the softness of woman, the woman the roughness of man, said, ‘In these cases the natural body has only to be laid aside by its decease for the spirit to assert its latent sexuality; so that many a woman who has gone to sleep on this side of Jordan in short gown and petticoat, will wake up by mere spiritual gravitation on the other side in corduroys and top boots; and many a man who has lain down in coat and pantaloons, will in like manner come to his true self-consciousness in petticoat and curl papers!’”

Wit and Wisdom, page 7
“A drop of the blackest ink may diffuse a light as brilliant as the light of day.”

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“The pleasant newspaper essays with which Henry Ward Beecher [1813-1887]  has amused his own lighter moments and those of his friends during the last few years, have been gathered into a comely little volume with the somewhat repulsive title of Eyes and Ears. Let no one turn away from the work as a treatise on special anatomy. The myriad-minded pastor refers to eyes that see ‘the light that never was on sea or shore,’ besides a great deal that adds beauty and interest to both; to ears that catch the melodies in which ‘the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.’”

Hampshire Gazette, November 11, 1862

Amherst,page 3
“Monuments and gravestones have been defaced in the burying ground in Amherst, by certain evil-minded persons who have not the fear of the law before their eyes.”

Harper’s Monthly, November 1862

Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908)
Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908)

Buying Winter Things, page 803 [by Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908), an American poet, story-writer and critic]
“I have not realized the fact of suffering as I realize it now. It is the hour of darkness all over the land. The resurrection morning will come by-and-by, but now the night is murk, and the stars are dim. I have given more to my country than gold could buy. One I loved, and who loved me, went, in August, with the three-years’ men [men who enlisted for three years and often received a bounty]. He came to me with the light of eager courage and self-devotion in his eyes, and asked me to bid him God-Speed, and send him on his mission. Yes, I gave him up. He is gone. He will come again, perhaps; but I can never forget that other perhaps—that the mouth which kissed mine at parting may never kiss again, and the eyes at whose courage I lit the fire of my own resolve may look their last on the smoky sky of some Southern battle-ground.”

“Dying is a Wild Night and a New Road”

winged skull grave imager

“Even in an age fascinated by [death’s] every manifestation and trapping,” according to Judith Farr, Dickinson “showed exceptional curiosity about death.” Curiosity, indeed. In several letters throughout her life, Dickinson wrote to observers at the death beds of loved ones asking, “Was he/she willing to die,” since “making a good death” in the Puritan religious tradition gave some indication that one was predestined for salvation (see, for example, L153 to Edward Everett Hale on death of her father’s law clerk and her poetic mentor Benjamin F. Newton).

But the deaths of loved ones decimated Dickinson. When she was fourteen, her close friend Sophia Holland, “with whom my thoughts & her own were the same,” died. This loss affected her profoundly. Two years later, on March 28, 1846, she wrote about this death to her new friend Abiah Root:

I visited her often in sickness & watched over her bed. But at length Reason fled and the physician forbid any but the nurse to go into her room. Then it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even to look at her face. At length the doctor said she must die & allowed me to look at her a moment through the open door. I took off my shoes and stole softly to the sick room.

There she lay mild & beautiful as in health & her pale features lit up with an unearthly—smile. I looked as long as friends would permit & when they told me I must look no longer I let them lead me away. I shed no tear, for my heart was too full to weep, but after she was laid in her coffin & I felt I could not call her back again I gave way to a fixed melancholy.

I told no one the cause of my grief, though it was gnawing at my very heart strings. I was not well & I went to Boston & stayed a month & my health improved so that my spirits were better. I trust she is now in heaven & though I shall never forget her, yet I shall meet her in heaven (L11).

As Farr notes, this early letter “contains some expressions common to sentimental Victorian death scenes,” but its suffering is real. Almost forty year later, the death of Susan and Austin’s third child, 8 year old Thomas Gilbert, nicknamed Gib, from typhoid fever in October 1883 devastated the family and caused Dickinson to have a breakdown from which she never recovered.

Thomas Gilbert
Thomas Gilbert “Gib” Dickinson (1875-1883)

Joan Kirkby outlines the larger cultural context for Dickinson’s attitudes. She notes that the 19th century experienced a “crisis of death” in which the new sciences and Enlightenment thinking severed death from its theological moorings, producing what theorist Roland Barthes calls “flat death,” demise without the assurance of an afterlife. People struggled with the notion of a “desacralized death” that thinkers, scientists and writers strove to explain.

At Amherst Academy in the 1840s, for example, Dickinson would have studied physician John Abercrombie’s Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers (1849), which declared:

our whole experience is opposed to the belief that one atom which ever existed has ceased to exist.

In the 1850s, Thomas Wentworth Higginson gave a series of lectures on spiritualism, a movement that had become wildly popular. They were printed as a track titled “The Results of Spiritualism,” and reported in the Springfield Republican on March 21, 1859. He concluded optimistically,

the principal results of the new phenomena, are the demonstrations of immortality and the removal of the fear of death and the terrors of theology.

Then, in the 1860s, the Civil War caused unforeseen and unprecedented death tolls. Drew Gilpin Faust explains that the war’s total fatalities, totaling about 620,000,

is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. … The Civil War produced carnage that has often been thought reserved for the combination of technological proficiency and inhumanity characteristic of a later time.

And that did not include civilians, women and children caught in the crossfire and chaos. Everyone was touched by the devastation.

One notable aspect of Dickinson’s “curiosity” about death was how it overlapped with her experience of love and passion, with the emotions of life in the body and in nature. In 1869, she wrote to console her cousin Perez Cowan on a loss and describes death in terms that echo one of her greatest erotic poems:

It grieves me that you speak of Death with so much expectation. I know there is no pang like that for those we love, nor any leisure like the one they leave so closed behind them, but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road.

I suppose we are all thinking of Immortality, at times so stimulated that we cannot sleep. Secrets are interesting, but they are also solemn – and speculate with all our might, we cannot ascertain  (L332).

Dickinson's graveDickinson planned out her own funeral down to the last details, requesting that her coffin be carried out the backdoor of the Homestead (not out the formal front door to a waiting, feather-bedecked, horse-drawn hearse, as was customary for people of her status) by six Irishmen who worked for her family, that they circle her flower garden, walk through the barn behind the house and down a grassy path across house lots and fields to West Cemetery and the family plot. For more details, See “Emily Dickinson and Death.” 

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Naseer Hassan

A small story with Emily Dickinson

My attention to Dickinson’s poetry started with reading a translation of some of her poems in a chapter of Archibald MacLeish’s Poetry and Experience (1961). That was in the 1990s. I felt then, ambiguously, that there was something mysterious and exceptional in those translated poems, but I felt simultaneously that the translation couldn’t grasp the precious essence of them.

This motivated me to search and find Dickinson’s poems in the English version (this was not easy at that time, due to the many restrictions and obstacles on books and publishing under the Iraqi dictatorship). I could later find a couple of books that included some of her poems. And the unique mixture of psychological introspection, the contemplative air of questions about death, fear, hope, and time—all this in short pieces urged me to try translating these small beautiful sculptures, to see how they would look in Arabic.

In those years I could only translate a few poems and published only 3; several I didn’t publish. The hard circumstances of living, the heavy censorship under the dictatorship, as well as some personal life difficulties made me not only stop translating more of Dickinson’s poems, but stop writing and publishing my own poems for long years too.

My “projects” revived about a decade ago and completing a book of Dickinson’s poems was a major one. And, so it was that Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems and Critical Articles was published first in Baghdad in 2009, then in Beirut in 2012. It included 51 selected poems and some critical articles on her poetry, to make it easier for the Arabic reader to approach this sort of unique, unfamiliar poetry.

In the past, there was perhaps only one book on Dickinson’s poetry in Arabic, as well as some translations of her poetry in magazines and periodicals. This reflects the profound cultural crisis in the Arab world, which affects many areas including the translation of foreign works into Arabic (and the statistics showing few translations of international works demonstrate this.) And as far as I know, my translation of Dickinson’s poetry is the first one in the current century, at least.

In the translation process, I faced exceptional difficulties. This kind of poetry, with its allusions, personifications, and interference of different levels in an integrated artistic context, needs special contemplation and an ability to “touch” the internal unity inside the rich variety. Without this, the hope of a successful translation will be in vain. Dickinson’s poems are almost like living tiny creatures, very sensible and rich, so the challenges of translation are naturally greater.

One of the important merits of great literature is that it can exceed limits of time and space. And Dickinson’s poetry has this merit; readers can see in its mirror the reflections of their own lives and contemplations, in spite of the huge distance in time and space from where the poems were born. Because we, Iraqis, passed through very hard conditions in the last decades—wars and destruction—questions about life, death, fear, hope, and the meaning of existence became more essential. All these elements exist in Dickinson’s poetry, so there is a sort of “spiritual kinship” with such poetry.

I love many of Dickinson’s poems, maybe most of all: “Because I could not stop for Death” and “I died for beauty,” which were two of the earliest poems I translated. Many questions and scenes that we pass through in our daily life make me go back to or remember this or that line of Dickinson’s poetry, and feel it again in a new way. For example, because our life in Iraq is almost like a continuous hurricane (with short intervals of peace), this makes it important to know how to restart again and again. And between each new start and another, there are spaces to stop and contemplate words like:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes
The nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.

Editor's note: Many thanks to poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who brought Naseer's  wonderful work to my attention and helped me make contact with him.

bio: Naseer HASSAN is an Iraqi poet and translator of poetry and philosophy. He was born in Baghdad in 1962 and graduated with a degree in architecture from Baghdad University. He is a member of the Iraqi Writers Union and the Iraqi Journalists Guild and has published four poetry collections in Arabic: [The Circle of Sundial] (1998), [Suggested Signs] (2007), [Being Here] (2008), and [Dayplaces] (2010). Hassan's collected poems appeared in 2010 from the Arabic Publishing House in Beirut. He has translated into Arabic three books of poetry and one of philosophy: [Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems and Critical Readings] (the first book on Emily Dickinson in Arabic); [Luis Borges: 60 Selected Poems]; [Days of the Shore: Selections from the New American Poetry 1980-2010]; and [Asian Philosophies by John Koller]. In addition, he has several poetic and philosophical translations forthcoming, including [Kierkegaard: A Brief Introduction], [Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation (Book 1)], and [House of the Star: Poems from Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes]


Faust, Drew Gilpin. The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Martin, Wendy. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 22.

Hampshire Gazette,
November 11, 1862

Harper's Monthly, November 1862

Springfield Republican, November 8, 1862

Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 4-5.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. “Preface.” The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Kirkby Joan. “Death and Immortality.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 160-168.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 5.

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October 29-November 4, 1862: Haunted!

In honor of Halloween and the dwindling of the light, this week we explore the “Poe-side” of Dickinson’s poetry of haunted things.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Rena J. Mosteirin

This week is Halloween, a celebration of everything ghoulish and frightening. The holiday came to the United States with Irish and Scottish immigrants, who came over in several waves in the nineteenth century (the great potato famine struck in 1845). Their Celtic ancestors had an ancient tradition of Samhain, a festival that marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. At this liminal time, the boundary between this world and the next was more permeable. People believed the ghosts of the dead would revisit their homes seeking hospitality, and other mischievous or evil spirits needed appeasement with fires, feasts, and disguises. Eventually, this festival merged with the Christian Church’s Eve of All Hallows (Saints) Day, which became a day of prayer for all souls in Purgatory.

Although the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries abandoned the celebration of All Saints Day, the English celebrated Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th, a commemoration of foiling a plot by Roman Catholics, angered by King James I’s refusal to grant then greater religious tolerance, to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. The English brought that celebration to the North American colonies. All of these traditions, and even some Native American customs, fed into Halloween, which, by the late 19th century became a popular holiday with some of the same rituals as we have today, such as bobbing for apples. In honor of Halloween and the dwindling of the light, this week we explore the “Poe-side” of Dickinson’s poetry of haunted things.

“The Air is Full of Farewells”

Springfield Republican, November 1, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The grand advance of the army of the Potomac has at length commenced. There have been many rumors of the retreat of the rebel army southward, but they are not confirmed, and Gen. Lee shows a conscious strength of some undiscovered depth of strategy by remaining between Martinsburg and Bunker Hill, while he must be aware that he is exposed to flank movements.”

Amusements and the War, page 2
“During this critical period in the nation’s history, when ‘the air is full of farewells’ for the departing and the dead, many people turn from all amusements as from things inappropriate and forbidden. Of course, some allowance must be made for individual tastes, but a general asceticism would be a grave mistake. We need some innocent reaction against the pressure of deprivation, anxiety and sorrow.”

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“The American public is at length consoled by the advent of the fifth and last installment of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables,have a reproduction in masterly literature of the artistic device, a wreath of passion-flowers about a cross. But the book is something more than a novel; it was written with a purpose and designed to exhibit the lower strata of social life in France, as ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘Among the Pines’ [popular novel of 1862 by James R. Gilmore] expose the carboniferous strata in America. The author is a social anatomist; he throws apart the integuments of custom and convention and lays bare the human heart that beats everywhere in the masses, in the schools, in the workshops, in the gutters.”

Hampshire Gazette, November 4, 1862

Veliky, Novogprod, Russia
Veliky, Novogprod, Russia

The Increase of the Russian Empire, page 1
“The celebration of the Thousandth Anniversary of the Russian Empire took place on the 20th of Sept., with imposing ceremonies in all the principal cities as a national festival. The principal celebration took place at Novogorod, whence the empire, it is claimed, has radiated to its present vast dimensions. Here the Emperor and the great officers of state assembled and witnessed the uncovering of the great bell of the place, which is regarded with superstitious veneration as the memorial of former freedom and glory.”

Palmer Leg
Palmer Leg

Maimed Soldiers Belonging to the New England States, page 3
“Soldiers who have lost their legs will be glad to learn that the Surgeon General of the United States has authorized Palmer & Co. of Boston, the justly celebrated artificial leg manufacturers, to furnish legs to all who elect to accept ‘Palmer Legs.’”

Harper’s Monthly, November 1862

The First Colonial Congress, page 769
“Although the Congress at Albany failed in efforts to establish a national government, and the bright visions of the people faded into dim dissolving views for the moment, their hopes and resolution were not diminished. The foundations of a future independent State were laid deeply in the minds and hearts of all thoughtful men. The idea of nationality was one of immense power, and it began a revolution which took no retrograde step.”

“Her Goth(ic) Persona”

19th century Halloween
19th century Halloween

It is a bit of a stretch to connect Dickinson and Halloween. Protestants in the United States eschewed Christian church festivals like All Saints’ Day. Dickinson grew up in a Puritan Congregational household, and a fairly dour one at that. But the town of Amherst was flooded with Irish immigrants, and by 1862, Dickinson’s family had several Irish servants working in the home. They may have brought a Samhain spirit with them, the ancient Celtic festival that marked the end of the agricultural season. And Amherst was an agricultural town. Dickinson would have been in tune with those rhythms, as her poetry and letters affirm.

What we can link Dickinson to is the literary tendency we call “the gothic,” which had also come over from England, where novelists like Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1764) and Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794) were concocting a heady brew of villains, maidens, secrets, and threats that proved wildly popular. There is no evidence that Dickinson read either of these writers, but she certainly adored their inheritors, novelists like Charlotte and Emily Brontë. In an earlier post, we explored the homegrown New England version of the Gothic among women writers of the “Azarian School,” who developed a heated, lush style of writing about intense emotional states, intoxication and ravishment. Critic David Cody has nominated Dickinson as an honorary member of this school.

According to Daneen Wardrop, who studies Dickinson’s use of the gothic, “Gothicism saturated Dickinson's culture,” which was obsessed with death and “apparitional” experiences. Dickinson herself was no stranger to death and loss. In a letter to her Norcross cousins written around this time, she describes the “general” sorrow caused by the war and says that she also “sang off the charnel steps” (L298).

Wardrop outlines what she calls “a feminine gothic,” which we will explore in the poems for this week. She argues that Dickinson’s early letters reveal that she was developing “her gothic persona” early on with accounts of strange noises, “boogey men” and binge reading of scary stories on sleep-overs with Sue (see note to L157). One hallmark of this genre is the fetishization of a manuscript often secret and sacred to the family–secret manuscripts not lacking in Dickinson’s world. Dickinson

reveres and apprentices herself to women gothic authors but also reads widely the work of American male gothic authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving.

As “the shadow-text” or “dark twin” of Romanticism,” gothicism is, according to G. R. Thompson,

the drama of the mind engaged in the quest for metaphysical and moral absolutes in a world that offers shadowy semblances of an occult order but withholds final revelation and illumination.

As Wardrop notes, that is the central promise of religion. Gothicism explores the liminal spaces between the “sacred and profane” and “provokes the reader to a simultaneous yearning for and renunciation of that illumination.”

There are other “ghosts” in Dickinson’s world as well. For example, what Aife Murray calls the “specter of slavery.” Apparently, in 1839 Amherst was the location of “a highly publicized case of 11-year old Angeline Palmer,” a free Black servant in a white family who conspired to take her south and sell her into slavery. Dickinson’s “lawyer father represented three African-American men who staged a daring stagecoach rescue of Angelina.” They refused, under oath, to reveal her whereabouts and were thrown into jail. In 1851, a year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave act, Dickinson wrote to her brother Austin about the disappearance of their stableman, Wells Newport, “great-grandson of a former slave, who, in the 18th century, successfully sued for his freedom in a Springfield court.” Murray argues that in a poem dated to 1861, Dickinson registers “the pervasive injustice of legalized human trafficking, north and south:”

The Lamp burns sure – within –
‘Tho’ Serfs – supply the Oil –
It matters not the busy Wick –
At her phosphoric toil!
The Slave – forgets – to fill –
The Lamp – burns golden – on –
Unconscious that the oil is out –
As that the Slave – is gone. (F247, J233)

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Rena J. Mosteirin

My poems depict ghosts I’ve seen and dreamed. After my grandmother died, I slept in my childhood bed in the room next to her bedroom. That night, I dreamed my grandmother as I had never seen her: she was young, wearing an old-fashioned bathing suit and running down a beach. She was beautiful and she was happy. This was a ghost of her from a time before World War II had turned her out of her home and destroyed her country. She was young and running down the beach and there was nothing that could hurt her anymore, now that she was dead.

Dickinson’s ghosts also appear in old-fashioned clothes. Dickinson is also more aware of ghosts when she is near to the things they left behind. In the poems we take up this week on White Heat, Dickinson describes ghosts in varied ways. “The only Ghost I ever saw” is concerned with the ghost walking. Walking is distinctly human, so Dickinson must show us how a ghost does it. She gives us this gem of a line in the beginning of the poem: “stepped like flakes of snow” to show the sub-humanly soft tread of the ghost. Where is the ghost going? The line “And God forbid I look behind” suggests the ghost is following her.

“The Mouldering Playmate” is a description that stands out in the poem “Of nearness to her sundered things,” a poem that smells of mold and dust. “Looking at Death, is Dying –” Dickinson writes in “'Tis so appalling it exhilarates.” “I felt a funeral in my brain takes up Dickinson’s own funeral and plunge downward into death until she is “Finished knowing.” Taken together, we might assume some rough shape for Dickinson’s philosophy of death: to know death is to die, but it is also the end of knowing. Yet if ghosts come back to tell us things, and to be with us—the living—then death cannot be the end of knowing. Dickinson’s poems behoove us to sit with that contradiction.

That same grandmother I dreamed in her bathing suit the night she died, later appeared to me in the spray of a whale while I was whale watching off Provincetown, Massachusetts. On the boat I was very near a grandparent (not one of my own, but an extremely comforting figure) and my grandmother’s message from beyond the grave was consoling, while taking into account the fear that her ghostly visitation would provoke. Here’s a poem I wrote about that experience:

Do Not Be Afraid

Two little girls, braided and brown
sat beside me hugging their grandfather
next to my husband as the boat pushed
through the froth toward the swells
that might be whales but weren’t, not yet.
Their grandfather wore a thick sweater
like my husband did that day and they
nodded at each other as if to acknowledge
that out of all the things in this great world
to wake up early for, whale watching
wasn’t even in the top ten. Then the whales
started leaping two by two, beside the boat,
under the double rainbow, the grandfather
started hollering and pointing—suddenly the whales
were all around us—the little girls shrieked,
and I began to cry, I didn’t know it until
I turned my face to my husband’s chest
and I was wiping good wet tears
and salt on his sweater, then I pulled away—
More whales had arrived and in their spray
was my dead grandmother, yes, I saw her—young!
Using the breath whales shoot above the surface,
she said, Do not be afraid. She said,
You’ve been grieving long enough.


Bio: Rena J. Mosteirin is the author of Nick Trail’s Thumb (Kore Press, 2008), selected for the Kore Press Short Fiction Chapbook Award by Lydia Davis, and the co-author of Moonbit (punctum books, forthcoming) with James E. Dobson. Mosteirin edits, is a graduate of Dartmouth College and holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the Writing Seminars at Bennington College.


Hampshire Gazette,
November 4, 1862

Harper's Monthly, November 1862

Springfield Republican, November 1, 1862


Murray, Aife. “Emily Dickinson’s Poems reflect Specter of Slavery.” Baystate Banner. 2/28/2012.

Wardrop, Daneen. Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996, 4-11.

Thompson, G. R., ed. The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Pullman: Washington State, University Press, 1974: 6.

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October 22-28, 1862: Queer Dickinson

This week’s post explores what scholars label the “queerness” of Dickinson’s writing. Reading Dickinson through a queer lens involves suspending the gender binaries and oppositions that structure mainstream society, normative notions of relations and time, as well as foregrounding the qualities of her thinking and writing that unsettle stultifying Victorian values.

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

In 1951, Rebecca Patterson published The Riddle of Emily Dickinson in which she proposed that Dickinson’s great love was not a man but a woman, Catherine Scott Turner Anthon, the “Katie” of Dickinson’s letters and poems. The protests were loud and strong. Apparently, few at that time wanted to acknowledge that the only canonized woman poet of the 19th century might be—a lesbian.

Elise Cowen (1933-1962)
Elise Cowen (1933-1962)

Except Elise Cowen, a Beat poet who briefly dated Allen Ginsberg  and also wrote lesbian love poems inspired by and addressed to Dickinson in the 1950s. Cowen sensed in Dickinson’s poetry what Patterson tried to prove with biographical and textual evidence.

Today, much has (mercifully) changed. But as much fun as it is (and also politically and personally consequential for occluded minority groups) to speculate about the genders and identities of Dickinson’s love interests, this week’s post explores more broadly what scholars label the “queerness” of Dickinson’s writing. In 1995, Sylvia Henneberg rejected the

fruitless investigations aimed at calling the poet or her poetry purely heterosexual or purely homosexual. Instead, one does greater justice to Dickinson and her work by recognizing that her eroticism resists definition and by examining how it does so.

Reading Dickinson through a queer lens involves suspending the gender binaries and oppositions that structure mainstream society, normative notions of relations and time, as well as foregrounding the qualities of her thinking and writing that questioned stultifying Victorian values.

“Passing Through the Furnace”

Springfield Republican, October 28, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The war news of the week has been meager and unimportant. The expectation of an immediate movement has prevailed for several weeks, and the causes for delay are known only to the commander and the government. There have been fears that the army would go into winter quarters around Harper’s Ferry, but that is out of the question. There are all sorts of necessities—military, political, moral and financial—for an active and successful fall campaign, and we have no doubt we shall have it.”

The Morals of War, page 2
“War is a forcing process; it accelerates development and abridges time. It opens a briefer road to the goal of human life. It arouses thought, excites emotion, inspires action. We are all living faster and with fuller vitality than heretofore in times of peace. We are growing better or worse. We are passing through the furnace, to come out vessels of honor or dishonor. This war is stamping its impress upon all our hearts, and it rests with us to choose whether it shall leave a stigma or a crown.”

Poetry, page 6
“The Wife’s Song.” By Kate Cameron [Kate B. W. Barnes,1836-1873. See the chapter on her in Newspaper Poets: Or, Waifs and their Authors by Alphonso Alva Hopkins (1876)]

Poem: The Wife's Song
Hampshire Gazette, October 28, 1862

Thoughts for Young Men, page 1
“Costly apparatus and splendid cabinets have no magical power to make scholars. In all circumstances, as a man is, under God, the maker of his own mind. The creator has so constituted the human intellect that it can grow only by its own action and by its own action it must certainly and necessarily grow. Every man must, therefore, educate himself. His books and teachers are but helps—the work is his. A man is not educated until he has the ability to summon, in case of emergency, all his mental powers into vigorous exercise, to affect his proposed object. The greatest of all the warriors that went to the siege of Troy had the pre-eminence, not because nature had given him strength, and he carried the largest bow, but self-discipline had taught him how to bend it.”

page 3
“Eight thousand signatures have been appended to an appeal from the women of the loyal States, praying for removal of all negligent, incompetent, drunken, or knavish men, who, in the first hurry of selection, obtained for themselves posts of responsibility; and that the President will retain in the army only capable, honest, and trustworthy soldiers.”

 Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Plaque in Leamington, England
Plaque in Leamington, England

Preface to “Leamington Spa” by Nathanial Hawthorne, page 451 [an essay about his sojourns in Leamington, England.]
“My dear Editor—
You can hardly have expected to hear from me again, (unless by invitation to the field of honor,) after those cruel and terrible notes upon my harmless article in the July Number. How could you find it in your heart (a soft one, as I have hitherto supposed) to treat an old friend and liege contributor in that unheard-of way? Not that I should care a fig for any amount of vituperation, if you had only let my article come before the public as I wrote it, instead of suppressing precisely the passages with which I had taken the most pains, and which I flattered myself were most cleverly done. However, I cannot lose so good an opportunity of showing the world the placability and sweetness that adorn my character, and therefore send you another article, in which, I trust, you will find nothing to strike out!

Truly, yours,
A Peaceable Man.”

“Queer Desires”

There has always been a cottage industry in speculation about Dickinson’s sexuality and romantic interests. Now they include women as well as men, and a range of tendencies such as

Polymorphous Perversity! Lesbianism! Autoeroticism! Necrophilia! Cross-dressing! Masochism!

according to Suzanne Juhasz’s survey of the scholarship in 2005. Indeed, it’s hard not to see the homoeroticism of these lines that accompanied a pair of garters Dickinson knitted for Kate Anthon, who was visiting Susan Dickinson at the Evergreens:

In September 2012, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections unveiled this daguerreotype, proposing it to be Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner (ca. 1859); it has not been authenticated.
In September 2012, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections unveiled this daguerreotype, proposing it to be Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner (ca. 1859); it has not been authenticated.

When Katie walks this simple pair
Accompany her side, –
When Katie runs unwearied they travel on the road,
When Katie Kneels, their loving bands
Still clasp her pious Knee –
"Oh Katie, smile at fortune with two
so Knit to thee -" (F49A.2, J222)

Although “lesbian” was not a category of sexual identity in Dickinson’s day, scholars like Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Nancy Cott have documented an extensive culture of passionate female relations and “romantic friendships” or “Boston marriages” that flourished and were socially acceptable during the nineteenth century. Throughout her life, Dickinson had several passionate attachments to women, from her early relationship with Emily Fowler, her flirtatious friendship with Kate Anthon, her daughterly dependence on Elizabeth Holland and her life-long connection to her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson. Her letters to Susan, especially the early ones before Susan’s marriage to Austin in 1856, are eloquent in their adoration. The many poems to and about these women record a pattern of passionate but frustrated love.

Since Rebecca Patterson’s 1951 biographical argument for Kate Anthon (1831-1917) as the object of Dickinson’s affections, which was largely ignored, other early scholars like Lillian Faderman and biographer John Cody identified homoerotic content in the letters and poetry. In 1990, Paula Bennett published her study, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, which argued for the poet’s lesbian sensibility and a “cliterocentrism” in some erotically charged poetic imagery of small round things. The work of H. Jordan Landry expands this approach, exploring Dickinson’s revisionary process as “Lesbianizing the Triangles of Puritan Conversion.”

Mutilated manuscript of
Mutilated manuscript of "One sister have I in our house" (F 5A, B, J14).

Other work reveals deliberate attempts to quash Dickinson’s affective orientation towards women. Martha Nell Smith’s reading of the original manuscripts reveals a systematic pattern of erasures and revision of female pronouns into male pronouns by editors, probably Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, in order to obliterate Susan Dickinson’s presence and disguise women as love objects in the poems and letters. Open Me Carefully, a collection of letters between Dickinson and Susan Huntington Dickinson, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Smith, has brought to light the salience of this relationship and their correspondence for both women.

Cynthia Nixon in
Cynthia Nixon in “A Quiet Passion” (2016)

Then, there are scholars who argue for both orientations. Judith Farr’s study, The Passion of Emily Dickinson (1992), juxtaposes long chapters on Dickinson’s “Narrative of Sue” and “Narrative of Master.” Recently, Cynthia Nixon, who plays Dickinson in the much-debated biopic A Quiet Passion (2016)directed by T erence Davies, and who came out as bisexual in 2010, spoke about her strong conviction that, like her, Dickinson also identified as bisexual.

Still another thread, advanced by Bennett who was following the lead of scholars like Susan Howe, Sharon Cameron and Cristanne Miller, argues that Dickinson’s embrace of indeterminacy in the form of textual variants and disrupted grammar is a revolt against the male domination of her period and creates a new form of femininity. As Smith argues, in Dickinson's case, we cannot separate sexuality and textuality.

Queer theorists like Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam and Heather Love go further in their critique of opposed gender binaries and the reproductive and temporal expectations they imply. Likewise, those reading Dickinson through a queer lens. Suzanne Juhasz defines her approach this way:

“Queer” is a verb, an adjective, and a noun. The verb means to skew or thwart. The adjective means unconventional, strange, suspicious. Queer as a noun was originally a derogatory term for male homosexuals. It has been reclaimed in academic theory as a tool to question and disarrange normative systems of behavior and identity in our culture, especially as they regulate gender, sexuality, and desire.

Scholars are increasingly exploring this approach to Dickinson. In creating his archive of “queer” 19th century American authors, for example, Peter Coviello includes Dickinson and her relationship with Sue as part of a group who

worried over the encroachment of a new regime of sexual specification, and so placed a countervailing emphasis on the erotic as a mode of being not yet encoded in the official vocabularies of the intimate.

Michael Snedicker uses Dickinson as one of four examples of the resources in lyric poetry to argue against the dominant trend in Queer theory that privileges melancholy, shame and the death drive. Rather, Dickinson and other queer poets illustrate a radical form of “queer optimism.” Most recently, Benjamin Meiners finds “foreignness,” a category associated with regions in Latin America, things rich and exotic, and Susan Dickinson,

as a key element in Dickinson’s articulation of her queer desires.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Victoria Corwin

“Choosing all by choosing nothing”

My relationship with queer Dickinson studies is a complicated one. I do deeply appreciate the concept and consider it incredibly important work, even imperative in most cases. However, I have to say I disagree with most of what is out there.

In my other Dickinson work, the manuscripts and variants in Dickinson’s poems fascinate me. Two of this week’s poems stand out in this regard: “I/He showed her/me hights” (F346A, B; J446) and “If I may have it when it’s dead” (F431; J577). Both have such radically different readings with their fairly extreme variants, Dickinson going so far as to replace an entire line in the second case, and completely alter the identity of the speaker in the first.

But did she really alter the speaker at all?

This week emphasizes how queerness acts not just as a noun but also as a verb. To perform queerness, to be queer, to queer a concept, is to modify the basic norm in some way. I would argue that Dickinson indeed queers her poetry, modifying it in some ways, but in queering it, she also destroys the “original” poem, and the notion of “original” as well. Exactly which poem did she “mean” to produce when she created two versions of “I/He showed her/me hights,” and which poem is the “variant”? Of course, there are no such things as right or wrong versions in Dickinson, as her texts were always living documents, texts she would return to again and again over years and years of rethinking and reimagining certain aspects of her poetry.

In the case of “I/He showed her/me hights,” discerning which is the “original” and which is the “variant” becomes even more impossible when one takes into account that the earlier copy (A) was sent to Sue, but the later copy (B) was copied into a fascicle. Dickinson practiced both letter writing and fascicle production as modes of self-publication, and even within those parameters, nothing was permanent and she continuously revised. The quintessential Dickinson poem, then, can be collapsed in on itself, all forms existing simultaneously in one living document, all copies just as valid, all combinations readable.

If you take “I/He showed her/me hights” in this way as a living document and collapsible poem, the notion of queerness becomes even clearer. The speaker of the poem—every iteration of the poem—retains the same identity as the protagonist, so to speak, but performs themself differently each time. The speaker never uses gendered pronouns, but in each “version” the speaker equates themself with a specific role in the relationship, which does correspond with gendered pronouns. In A, the speaker takes the active masculine-aligned role (which uses he/him/his pronouns when not controlled by the speaker’s “I”), and in B, the passive feminine-aligned role (using she/her/hers when not controlled). Since Dickinson queered the poem, we can collapse it, therefore assigning both roles to a single speaker, rather than keeping the two roles separate and taking both copies as from separate speakers. A single speaker, in this way, encompasses both gender roles, both gendered pronouns, both active and passive stances, and therefore both genders and the spaces in between them, as an entity with vacillating pronouns. The speaker is genderfluid, an individual that occupies the space outside of the gender binary that Dickinson explores and breaks down both in this poem and in many of her others.

We know that Dickinson frequently plays in the liminal spaces that concrete definitions cannot reach. She “chooses not choosing” by self-publishing her work in fascicle form among other modes, as we’ve explored in past weeks. Here, she chooses all by choosing nothing. All versions and variations of her poems are legitimate, because none of them is ever specified as the “final,” “original,” or “correct” version.

This is why I disagree with queer Dickinson studies. Too often I find that we forget that choosing nothing is an option, and through making that choice, we open ourselves to all possibilities. Queer identities are much more extensive than scholars glimpse, and personally, I find Dickinson’s work leaning more towards the agender, aromantic, and asexual end of the spectrum. Dickinson frequently chose nothing in her life as a physical recluse and an unmarried woman, and also in her work, where she utilizes themes of emptiness, unattainable or overwhelmingly disturbing desire, and most relatably, the relief at this lack of a love object akin to the celebration of freely expressing a disinterest in love and sex.

“If I may have it when it’s dead” is a good example of this great sigh of relief at the prospect of a love object (the “Thee” and the “Lover”) becoming permanently unavailable, in this case, through death. The speaker laments how overwhelming the potential lover is as the “Bliss I cannot weigh” when alive and able to be interacted with, and instead wishes for a time to come when the lover lies still in a grave, quietly nostalgic for lives past, a time when the speaker could “stroke [the lover’s] frost,” which “Outvisions Paradise!”

Of course, “Wild Nights! Wild Nights!” serves as a strong antithesis to an end-all be-all prescription of Dickinson’s sexuality, and indeed I do not think that we should prescribe at all. Merely, I want to propose opening up the definition of queerness in Dickinson to include the option of affection without immediate sexual connotations, the ability to choose nothing. For Dickinson, vague unanswered questions—or simply leaving a question blank, as at the end of “I/He showed her/me hights”—are some of the most powerful forces in the universe.

bio: Victoria Corwin is a Dartmouth class of ‘19 and a student of English and Classical Archaeology. She edits the Stonefence Review and writes fiction and poetry whenever the time is right. A voracious reader and a devout Dickinson scholar, she swears by adjectives, Open Me Carefully, and “One Sister have I in the house -,” and thinks words only grow more powerful when crossed out.


Hennenberg, Sylvia. “Neither Lesbian Nor Straight: Multiple Eroticisms in Emily Dickinson’s Love Poetry.” Emily Dickinson Journal 4.2 (1995): 1-19, 4.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Amplitude of Queer Desire in Dickinson's Erotic Language.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005) 24-33, 24.

Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Hampshire Gazette, October 28, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 25, 1862

Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Coviello, Peter. Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America. NY: New York University Press, 2013, 4.

Hart, Ellen Louise and Martha Nell Smith, eds. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Amplitude of Queer Desire in Dickinson's Erotic Language.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005) 24-33, 24-25.

Meiners, Benjamin. “Lavender Latin Americanism: Queer Sovereignties in Emily Dickinson's Southern Eden.” Emily Dickinson Journal 27. 1 (2018) 24-44, 24.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs 1.1 (Autumn 1975): 1-29.

Snedicker, Michael. Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

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