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 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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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 15-21, 1862: Autumn

Last week in 1862 the Springfield Republican published an enthusiastic notice about the forthcoming October issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which begins with Henry David Thoreau’s posthumously published essay, “Autumnal Tints” and ends with John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The Battle Autumn of 1862.” This week’s post focuses on the theme of “Autumn” and explores these two works as important social and rhetorical contexts for Dickinson’s poetry of autumn written during this period.

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

Last week in 1862, the Springfield Republican published an enthusiastic notice about the forthcoming October issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which begins with Henry David Thoreau’s posthumously published essay, “Autumnal Tints” and ends with John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The Battle Autumn of 1862.” These two works were part of a cultural moment of unrivaled natural beauty and unforeseen national horror at the growing deadly toll of the Civil War. This week’s post focuses on the theme of “Autumn” and explores these two works as important social and rhetorical contexts for Dickinson’s poetry of autumn written during this period.

Walden Pond. cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly, Nov 1, 2012
Walden Pond. cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly, Nov 1, 2012

Dickinson would have read both the essay and the poem in the Atlantic. They help to frame or, perhaps, echo her use of the seasonal and symbolic imagery of autumn to express her shocked awareness of war-time losses and death. During her life, Dickinson wrote many poems about autumn, but as Michelle Kohler argues, the poems she wrote in the autumn of 1862

are distinct not only for their quantity compared to other years but also for their haunting, sometimes violent imagery and their self-conscious, ironic tones … no doubt provoked by the war’s violent transformation of the national landscape.

“Battle Autumn of 1862”

Springfield Republican, October 18, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The rebels have taken advantage of our prolonged inaction on the Potomac, and Stuart’s cavalry [J. E. B. “Jeb” Stuart (1833-1864), Virginia-born US Army officer who became a gallant and masterful Confederate general during the Civil War] has made a bold raid into Pennsylvania, making the complete circuit of our army and getting back safely into Virginia. This exploit was more daring and, under the circumstances, more successful than the similar exploit of the same dashing cavaliers on the Chickahominy, and it is impossible not to admire their gallantry, disgraceful as the facts are to our own side.”

The Word for the Hour, page 2
“If ever there was an hour in the history of our country when the emergency demanded new hope and courage and cheerfulness, and the grasping of new strength for the sinews of toil, that hour is the present. Not that there is any lack of determination or resolution, for every set and every expression bears the seal of both. As a people we had learned to be buoyant and jovial and hopeful. Now is the time to be on our guard against the discouragements, the suspicions, the doubts, the fears, the sadness which will seek to overpower and make us imbecile.”

Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“Musical matters in this country are very naturally quiescent, while war and battle’s sound predominate. The government evidently has no ‘ear,’ and is forgetful of the inspiring effect music has on soldiers, for it has dismissed most of its regimental bands.”

Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862

Amherst, page 2
Hon. Horace Maynard of Tennessee spoke in Agricultural Hall on Monday evening week on the state of the country. He denounced slavery as the cause of the war and deprecated the raising of party issues at the present time.”

Harper’s Monthly, October 1862

Romola, page 669 [historical novel of 1862-63 by George Eliot]
“Death had met him at his journey’s end. She had seen it all now. Loss, suffering—weary hearts, brave, hopeful hearts—and here the drama’s close! She felt as if she could never smile again as they glided silently away from the sloping green shore. So much voiceless, uncomplaining misery in those glistering, white tents, and in the homes, they were wearying to see! So much courage and self-sacrifice! So much devotion to a country that scarcely heeded these numberless patient offerings to its need!”

Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Autumn leaves, Walden Pond. cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly, Nov 1, 2012
Autumn leaves, Walden Pond. cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly, Nov 1, 2012

from the Springfield Republican, October 11, 1862, Nature, Newspapers, Etc., page 7
“The Atlantic for October would be a capital number if it contained nothing but the opening ‘Autumnal Tints’ by Thoreau and the ending ‘Battle Autumn’ by Whittier. What a sweet, sanctifying influence nature has upon her truest children. The simplicity born of her very self, the calm and the dignity, the purity and tenderness, the soft shadows, the wonderful fragrance, all her most delicate attributes steal into the works of these two men, and through their works we love them both.”

from “Autumnal Tints” by Henry David Thoreau

It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! how gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!—painted of a thousand hues, and fit to make the beds of us living. So they troop to their last resting place, light and frisky. They put on no weeds, but merrily they go scampering over the earth, selecting the spot, choosing a lot, ordering no iron fence, whispering all through the woods about it,—some choosing the spot where the bodies of men are mouldering beneath, and meeting them half-way. How many flutterings before they rest quietly in their graves! They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,—with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.

“The Battle Autumn of 1862” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

“Red is the Color of Colors”

Fall 1862 was a particularly bloody and traumatic time for the nation and must have deeply affected Dickinson and her circle of dedicated newspaper and journal readers. Papers and magazines printed detailed reports of bloody battles and battlefields, often accompanied by illustrations, and carried reports of Matthew Brady’s exhibit in New York of photographs of the horrible aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. As the reports intensified, attitudes became more agitated and extreme. In several letters Dickinson wrote during this period, she wrestles with the realities of the war.

For many of Dickinson’s contemporaries, the war represented a divine punishment of national sins, especially the sin of slavery. In an examination of writing about the war during this period, David Cody finds many writers expressing the widespread belief that only a bloody purgation of the national soul, identified as

a national crucifixion … will make possible a triumphant national resurrection.

As Julia Ward Howe famously wrote in her “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in the Springfield Republican in February 1862, God himself was “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” to produce a new sacramental wine we all must drink. In Howe’s ringing lyrics, the “burnished rows of steel” contain “a fiery Gospel,” and war becomes a “righteous sentence” passed on all of us, who must sacrifice ourselves as Christ sacrificed himself.

By contrast, readers welcomed the two texts in the Atlantic this month for their calming and healing tone. Both texts, especially Whittier’s poem, acknowledge the devastating effects of war but focus on the autumnal beauty of “Nature,” which implies recuperative cycles and a “higher” form of apprehension.

Whittier’s is the more traditional vision, depicting Nature as keeping

Her ancient promise well,
Though o’re her bloom and greenness sweeps
The battle’s breath of hell.

In his vision, war is not the glorious sacrifice depicted by Howe in her “Battle Hymn,” but associated with Hell and chaos, hate, bitterness and suffering. The speaker asks “in times like these” for the ability to see with Nature’s eyes and hear with her ears in order to meet the palpable grief and pain around us.

She mocks with tint of flower and leaf
The war-field’s crimson stain.

Mocks because Nature's sanguinary colors do not signify tragic death but the necessary harvest of ripeness and the rest and renewal of the earth.

Thoreau worked on his essay as he lay dying of tuberculosis in early 1862; he never knew of the atrocities of Antietam, yet his words address a nation in turmoil. The essay turns the “notes” he took on the autumnal changes of a range of local plants, grasses and trees into a kind of word-fugue adorned with philosophical reflections. Dickinson responds to and echoes many passages from this beautiful essay in her autumn poetry.

For Thoreau, as for Dickinson, the seasons and, in fact, all of the physical world are emblematic. Thoreau says, “October is [the world’s] sunset sky,” the season of flaming beauty, ripeness and harvest. It brings an inestimable wealth of beauty the world bestows on us all as our common inheritance, free for the taking, if we can but “see” it:

No annual training or muster of soldiery, no celebration with its scarfs and banners, could import into the town a hundredth part of the annual splendor of our October.

Red leaves at Walden Pond, cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly Nov 1, 2012

Red leaves at Walden Pond, cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly Nov 1, 2012

And if we only “elevate our view a little,” we can see that red “is the color of colors [that] speaks to our blood” but not in terms of warfare and killing:

It is the emblem of a successful life concluded by a death not premature, which is an ornament to Nature. What if we were to mature as perfectly, root and branch, glowing in the midst of our decay …

For Thoreau, we cannot rightly appreciate living without embracing the end of life, a lesson we can learn from the autumnal tints of the New England woods. But there are larger lessons to learn from the trees:

Maple trees, New England Fall
Maple trees, fall in New England

A village needs these innocent stimulants of bright and cheering prospects to keep off melancholy and superstition. Show me two villages, one embowered in trees and blazing with all the glories of October, the other a merely trivial and treeless waste, or with only a single tree or two for suicides, and I shall be sure that in the latter will be found the most starved and bigoted religionists and the most desperate drinkers. Every wash-tub and milk-can and gravestone will be exposed. The inhabitants will disappear abruptly behind their hams and houses, like desert Arabs amid their rocks, and I shall look to see spears in their hands. They will be ready to accept the most barren and forlorn doctrine,—as that the world is speedily coming to an end, or has already got to it, or that they themselves are turned wrong side outward.

Dickinson must have appreciated Thoreau’s mocking account of the Puritan forebears they shared:

One wonders that the tithing-men and fathers of the town are not out to see what the trees mean by their high colors and exuberance of spirits, fearing that some mischief is brewing. I do not see what the Puritans did at this season, when the Maples blaze out in scarlet. They certainly could not have worshipped in groves then. Perhaps that is what they built meeting-houses and fenced them round with horse-sheds for.

Finally, with her disdain of society and love of hay and grass and sense of the agency of nature, Dickinson must have resonated with this passage in Thoreau's essay:

Andropogan scoparius
Andropogan scoparius [common name: purple wood-grass]

Think what refuge there is for one, before August is over, from college commencements and society that isolates! I can skulk amid the tufts of Purple Wood-Grass on the borders of the “Great Fields.” … I had brushed against them and trodden on them, for sooth; and now, at last, they, as it were, rose up and blessed me. Beauty and true wealth are always thus cheap and despised. Heaven might be defined as the place which men avoid. Who can doubt that these grasses, which the farmer says are of no account to him, find some compensation in your appreciation of them?

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

As I write, a surprisingly warm breeze (for mid-October in Vermont) ruffles the leaves of the old lilac tree outside my study window, while rich afternoon sun glints off the leaves fallen to the ground. The sky is absolutely clear, a light blue. And while there is no scarlet rain in the forecast, this also feels like a bloody autumn season, given the political situation, the recent confirmation travesty, and the upcoming mid-term elections.

I have to confess to taking refuge in the nineteenth century more times than I care to say this year; perhaps work we love is a healthy solace. And so I take this opportunity to reflect on the process of White Heat at this time of harvest and gathering in. Every week brings a surprise like a crisp apple, sometimes many surprises. Here are the surprises for this week.

First, reading Thoreau is always a revelation, but especially in light of Dickinson. I think much more work could be done on his influence on her thinking and writing. In reading his essay, “Autumnal Tints,” I am struck by their common discourse of natural things as “friends” and how the autumn colors “excite” Thoreau in an almost erotic way. Talking about the late red Maples, he exclaims, and I can almost hear Dickinson approving his sentiment:

A queen might be proud to walk where these gallant trees have spread their bright cloaks in the mud.

I am struck by Thoreau's casual assertion of the contemporary presence of ancient mythology. In describing the “great fleet of scattered leaf-boats which we paddle amid” on an afternoon trip up the Assabet, he adds as an aside:

—like boats of hide, and of all patterns, Charon's boat probably among the rest, and some with lofty prows and poops, like the stately vessels of the ancients, scarcely moving in the sluggish current,—

With the merest of ripples in the emotional tenor of his description, death in its ancient form of a water crossing slips into the tranquil Concord landscape.

There are so many more passages to highlight, but my favorite is this: Thoreau is describing “a small Red Maple” that has

added to it stature … by a steady growth for so many months, never having gone gadding abroad, and is nearer heaven than it was in the spring.

This reminds me of our discussion of the word “gad” in a notable poem in last week’s post, “It would have starved a gnat” (F444, J612), in which the speaker complains she is so diminished that, unlike the tiny gnat, she does not even have

the Art
Opon the Window Pane
to gad my little Being out –.

Maybe gadding abroad is not all it’s cracked up to be.

And talk about gnats, did Dickinson borrow the idea of hers from Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” a poem critical to the poems of autumn we looked at this week? Here's what Keats has to say about this arthropod: 

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

For rather insignificant things, they get a lot of airplay from Keats as the wailing choir mourning the end of autumn, and they certainly “gad” about but in a mournful way.

One last surprise this week was reading “Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red –” (F468, J658) a part of this group of autumnal-themed/war poems and glimpsing there the “horrid crews” of Satan’s fallen armies from Paradise Lost.

Finally, I offer two of my Autumn poems written as an American sojourner in London.

Mason Arms, London. cr. Tom Luxon
Mason Arms, London. cr. Tom Luxon

To Autumn

Dust skirts the Broad Walk of Regent’s Park
acorns underfoot burst from barbed husks
stumbling walkers ear-budded and
huddled into down vests
by noon folding macs across arms in the damp sun.

Is it really you?
Plenty of late flowers for the bees—
anemones and cyclamen
but Asian hornets arriving from France
threaten decimation.
We stand amazed at the Masons Arms,
five flights of blooms
tumbling from boxes on red brick,
but September brought scorching heat
we feared would never end.

Back home you don’t seem quite so battered.
New England’s blaze of trees
shames the sad brown things bundled into sacks
by London street sweepers.
Apples brew cider burnished like champagne
and on the West Coast
trimming season is in full swing
where you have been sighted
drowsing among the weed
high and heavy with resinous buds
awaiting legalization.

How can we sing this season
homesick and appalled by the US election?
Keats’s redolent words mock us.
Deer still browse in Sussex fields

but Brexit looms like winter’s chilblains.

Out of Place
             after Adrienne Rich

I wanted everything to bloody stop
Badly I wanted the walkers to work the runners and tourists
gash of giant red busses barreling down the road
to stop
abruptly as I had stopped in mid-stride
dropped to my knees slipping the mask
of urban indifference–
dead fox in Marylebone Road.

Splayed on its side at the edge of the curb.
Was it a vixen I couldn’t tell but suddenly wanted
the fierceness of vixens protecting their kits
wanted to stroke its pelt the light russet of ferrous earth
breathe the tang of rankness
browning bracken of moors and briars it had torn through
wanted a wildness to tear through
the sharp bramble of lies and lacerations.

But some frayed blue fabric around its neck
stopped my hand
makeshift collar fashioned by a child perhaps
who thought to domesticate a city fox
or bit of construction-site tarp
poked through in search of food
then torn away in feral panic
not bearing to be caught or tethered
collared like sea fowl strangled
by loops of six-pack holders.

Mysterious blue ruff
stiff against your auburn fur
royal against dirty streets and masked eyes.
I could hardly bear to look
your sly elongated muzzle
hear your bloody screech
as if you were the last free thing on earth.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.


Kohler, Michelle. “The Ode Unfamiliar: Dickinson, Keats, and the (Battle)fields of Autumn. Emily Dickinson Journal 22, 1, 2013: 30-54, 30.

Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862

Harper's Monthly, October, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 18, 186

Cody, David. “Blood in the Basin: The Civil War in Emily Dickinson’s ‘The name of it is Autumn.’ " The Emily Dickinson Journal 12 1, 2003: 25-52, 39-40.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Autumnal Tints.” Atlantic Monthly, October 1862.

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September 24-30, 1862: Religion

This week we dip into the vast topic of Dickinson and religion, an exploration that is long overdue in an immersion into her life in 1862. Dickinson is notable for her refusal to convert but her poetry remains saturated with religious ideas, questions and images, some of which we will examine.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Anna Morrison

This week we dip into the vast topic of Dickinson and religion, an exploration that is long overdue in an immersion into her life in 1862. In an earlier post in March exploring Fascicle 18, we focused on the theme of Resurrection in that gathering of poems and linked it to the Dickinson family mourning the death of Frazar Stearns, the young son of the President of Amherst College and friend of Austin Dickinson, who died at the battle of New Bern.

Likewise, this week’s exploration of religion is framed by news on September 17, 1862, of the horrific battle of Antietam, which the Springfield Republican reported as “the largest and most destructive battle of the whole war”– to date. Even after two more years of fighting, historians call this battle the “bloodiest day” in American history: 23,100 casualties. It also changed the course of the war and our history: on September 22, President Lincoln capitalized on the South’s retreat across the Potomac and issued “The Emancipation Proclamation.”

  Between two farm fields in Sharpsburg, Md., there was a sunken road, which Confederates used as a rifle pit until they were overrun by federal troops. The road has since been known as

Between two farm fields in Sharpsburg, Md., there was a sunken road, which Confederates used as a rifle pit until they were overrun by federal troops. The road has since been known as "Bloody Lane."
Library of Congress

The deadliness of the Civil War is an important context for thinking about Dickinson and the consolations (or not) of religion, but there is so much more to explore in Dickinson’s complex attitudes towards and use of religious imagery. Most accounts of her early life report that she grew up in

a Calvinist household [and] attended religious services with her family at the village meetinghouse, Amherst’s First Congregational Church, [ and that ] Congregationalism was the predominant denomination of early New England.

But what doctrines did she hear preached and what did her family, who had all “converted” by 1850 during the frequent religious revivals that swept through Amherst, actually believe? Dickinson is notable for her refusal to convert but her poetry remains saturated with religious ideas, questions and images, many of which we will examine.

“Pray for the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Entire Nation”

Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The largest and most destructive battle of the whole war occurred at Antietam Creek, Maryland, on Wednesday last. Not less than a hundred thousand men were engaged on each side; the contest was kept up throughout the day, and at night no less than twenty thousand men had fallen on the field, killed and wounded. The advantage was on our side; we had driven back both wings of the rebel army and held position of the field, and their losses were obviously much greater than our own.”

Christian Women Called to Prayer, page 1
“At a meeting of several hundred women of various denominations, a circular was adopted to the women of the United States, suggesting to them to form circles of prayer throughout the land, and to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the entire nation; for the president and his councilors; for the officers of the army and navy; for our soldiers and seamen; for their families; for ministers of the Gospel, and for the oppressed of our land; and agreeing to observe Monday of every week as a day of especial prayer, assembling at 10 a.m. and at 8 p.m.; each service to occupy two hours.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

A Fair Estimate of President Lincoln, page 6
“Now that some of those who aided in electing President Lincoln are making a strenuous effort to destroy confidence in him, an occasional word in his favor is only fair. The Washington correspondent of the New York Commercial Advertiser makes the following estimate of the present, and we believe that impartial history will decide that it is not overdrawn:—

His shoulders are fully square and strong enough to bear all the cares of state that may fall to his lot; and he can therefore stand cheerfully erect under the assaults of open enemies and pretended friends. His program is prepared to the end, and he will carry it out, to the very letter.

The Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862

Another Proclamation, page 2
“President Lincoln has issued another proclamation of no small importance, and that is eliciting considerable discussion. It is the proclamation suspending the right of habeas corpus. It is contended on one hand that the government is about to restrict free speech and erect a tyranny by which to govern the loyal states. Freedom of political action is to be prohibited and summary arrests and imprisonments are to be the order henceforth. On the other hand, it is said that the new proclamation is not intended to inaugurate any new system of espionage and arrest, but to restrain and refine the operation of a system already in use.”

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

A Complaint of Friends, p. 359 by M. A. Dodge [Mary Abigail Dodge (1833-1896) wrote under the name Gail Hamilton; she was one of the first female political correspondents in Washington, DC known for writing essays that were particularly harsh on men.]

“Doubtless friendship has its advantages and its pleasures; doubtless hostility has its isolations and its revenges: still, if called upon to choose once for all between friends and foes, I think, on the whole, I should cast my vote for foes. Twenty enemies will not do you the mischief of one friend. Enemies you always know where to find. They are in fair and square perpetual hostility, and you keep your armor on and your sentinels posted; but with friends you are inveigled into a false security, and, before you know it, your honor, your modesty, your delicacy are scudding before the gales.”

Harper’s Monthly, September 1862

The Christ Child Bearing the Cross – Cornelis Galle II“My whole life is covered with thorns.”
The Christ Child Bearing the Cross – Cornelis Galle II: “My whole life is covered with thorns.”

Saint Luke’s Hospital, page 504
“The walls of this beautiful [hospital] were hung with charming pictures, such as a child would care to look at again and again. And chief among these was a copy of the well-known picture, more significant to me than any rosy Cherub of Raphael or Dead Christ of Rubens. It represents the Holy Child bearing on his baby shoulder the cross, held fast with dimpled hands; at his feet the crown of thorns and the blood-stained nails; and in his great, pathetic eyes awful shadows of Gethsemane and Cavalry. The Holy Child seemed to lift up a standard in the midst of these little cross-bearers, and to be leading and sustaining them upward and onward to victory.”

“I do not Feel that I could Give up all for Christ”

Dickinson’s religious upbringing is well documented, though scholars differ on how this upbringing influenced her thinking and writing. The Dickinsons traced their ancestry to Nathaniel and Anna Dickinson, who came over with John Winthrop on the Arbella in 1630 in order to establish a Puritan commonwealth in North America. They were Protestants, who rejected the Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, and Congregationalists, who believed each congregation should govern itself independently. They were called “Puritans,” somewhat derisively, because they wanted to further purify the Church of England, which had undergone Protestant reformation under Elizabeth I. But they soon moved to the colony of Connecticut under the more liberal leadership of Thomas Hooker, and then to Hadley in the Connecticut River Valley, an area that bred some very famous Puritan leaders: Solomon Stoddard (a reformer) and his grandson, the famous philosopher and “last of the Puritans,” Jonathan Edwards.

The early Puritans held to the principles formulated at the Synod of Dort in 1618, a meeting of Protestant theologians to settle the controversy over Arminianism, the belief that humans could prepare for divine grace. In what is quaintly known as the TULIP theology, the Synod rejected Arminianism and affirmed the following doctrines:

Total Depravity: since the Fall, humanity is depraved and lacks the means to salvation
Unconditional election (predestination): Despite total depravity, God has elected some people for eternal glory; the rest are condemned to eternal damnation
Limited Atonement: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross made possible the divine election of specific people predestined to salvation by God’s unknowable plan
Irresistible Grace: For the elect, God’s grace is inevitable and irreversible even for the sinner
Perseverance of the Saints: The elect, or “Saints,” persevere as individuals or groups.

Fairly tough stuff and seemingly obscure, but we will see elements of these doctrines in Dickinson's work. The one key innovation of the New England Puritans, an extreme attempt at “purity” which earned them their mocking epithet, was their desire to restrict church members to those they deemed were “elected” (or predestined to Heaven), who then became what they called “visible saints”– people who made a creditable public confession of faith.

Although Jonathan Edwards tried to hold the line against reform, by the 1830s, this austere belief system had softened into something more genteel, though its basic outlines and dispositions remained, especially in rural areas like Amherst, MA. Edwards’ grandson, Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister and president of Yale, stressed Christianity’s social usefulness and moral improvement of the self. Similarly, in his speech on the dedication of Amherst College in 1820, Noah Webster echoed the millennial and imperial imagery of his Puritan forebears, casting the College's purpose as similar to the work of

the apostles themselves, in extending and establishing the Redeemer’s empire—the empire of truth. … to aid in the important work of raising the human race from ignorance and debasement; to enlighten their minds; to exalt their character; and to teach them the way to happiness and glory.

As Roger Lundin observes, Protestant evangelicalism adopted the secular idea of progress to create the republican ideal we now identify as “Whig”:

a means of securing the social order for divinely appointed ends … the ideal faith for men of the rising professional class in the early nineteenth-century New England village.

First Congregational Church in Amherst
First Congregational Church in Amherst

Dickinson's father Edward  epitomized this ideal, subscribing to the conservative social and gender ideologies of rationalism, responsibility and order that went along with it, and imposed his beliefs on his family. Not only did they attend services at the First Congregational Church in Amherst, hearing sermons on faith and salvation (which Dickinson commented on profusely in her letters) and singing hymns (which influenced her poetic form), but he led them in daily family prayers and Bible readings (the Bible being a crucial source of imagery for Dickinson).

Emily Dickinson's bible, presented by her father Edward in 1844.  (Emily Dickinson Museum)
Emily Dickinson's bible, presented by her father Edward in 1844. (Emily Dickinson Museum)

Though a Puritan and Yankee spirit (see Richard Sewall for the distinction) pervaded rural Amherst society, in 1833 Massachusetts disestablished Congregationalism as the state church, which made it dependent on revivals to populate its pews. This prompted a series of revivals that swept through the Pioneer Valley. Dickinson’s mother converted in one of these revivals in 1830 and in 1846, Dickinson corresponded with her friend Abiah Root about her struggles over “becoming a Christian.” She eventually told Abiah:

I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die (L13).

She also resisted the revival at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847-48. The rest of her family converted in 1850 and by the late 1850s Dickinson’s attendance at church and at the associated women’s benevolent society circles began to drop off.

Dickinson’s refusal to convert and participate in collective worship did not prevent her from absorbing and recasting many of the ideas and predispositions of early Puritanism. She thoroughly embraced the central Protestant doctrines of the importance of self-examination in solitude through writing, of requiring personal evidence of spiritual beliefs, and of having a direct, experiential relationship with God. In pursuit of these activities, she created a poetic discourse that makes ample use of technical terms such as grace, faith, election, ordinance, sacrament (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), seal, glory, spirit, crown, throne, savior, Calvary, crucifixion, resurrection, and immortality, but often layers these concepts with secular and highly personal meanings.

Some of the more extreme Puritan doctrines she thoroughly rejected: for example, the notions of original sin, fallen nature, predestination, and damnation. Richard Sewall concludes:

Confronting that tradition squarely, she appropriated its components selectively and shrewdly, revered it, but never capitulated to it.

Dickinson has also been linked to other religious traditions, like Daoism, Buddhism and Catholicism. She was also profoundly influenced by Emerson’s and Thoreau’s Transcendentalism (a reaction against Puritanism), which moved the site of religious or spiritual communion out of the church and into nature. While Protestantism has a strong tradition of what it calls “Imitatio Christi,” the believer’s identification with Christ’s life, struggles and sacrifice, Dickinson’s focus on imagery of crucifixion, especially in the 1860s, seems downright Catholic. We know that she owned a copy and read the fifteenth-century devotional book, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Furthermore, her emphasis on the sacraments evokes a Catholic view of the physical world as profoundly enchanted and miraculous. The Protestant church reduced the sacraments to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper and rejected the Catholic doctrine of the “Real Presence” of God for the notion of a “Spiritual Presence” apprehended through symbols.

As Emily Seelbinder notes in her short essay on Dickinson and Religion,

She has been claimed as both Catholic and Protestant, Calvinist and anti-Calvinist, firm believer and lifelong skeptic. She has been identified as a mystic, an antinomian, and an existentialist. Some critics argue that she rejected the religious practices of her day or at least seriously questioned them. Other counter that she was always a deeply religious person or that she gradually become one as her life progressed. Still others assert that her “religion” was poetry. … While Dickinson’s belief system may be impossible to codify, her exploration of religious subjects is rich and diverse.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Anna Morrison

I remember my father bringing home a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems from a library book sale—or maybe it was a yard sale? He went to these regularly and returned home with books on religion and history for himself and poetry for me. He was not familiar with Dickinson, but he explained to me that he chose this book because she wrote poems like mine, by which he meant poems written predominantly in hymnal stanzas. I grew up steeped in Protestant hymns and poems, and that was naturally the first poetic form to which I was drawn, writing my own hymns before I realized that I was writing poetry and not music. It was shortly after this introduction to Dickinson that I stopped writing in hymnal stanzas (probably not a coincidence), but this poetic and spiritual upbringing is still a presence in my writing decades later.

Reading Dickinson as a young girl was a shock. I felt so attuned to the hymn that her gestures within and against that form jolted me—her emphatic dashes, her slant rhymes, her heady wielding of meter and contrary play against it. I felt her turning toward and against possibilities at every syllable (or, more accurately, at every moment—the dashes and silences marking dynamic opportunities, even without syllables). I also responded to Dickinson’s careful self-inquiry and her respect for the authenticity of doubt. Even before reading her biography, I sensed that she would consider it hypocrisy to espouse beliefs with which her soul was not wholly in accord. A few years later, this would resonate strongly with my teenage sense that heretical thought demonstrated a more attentive engagement with the divine than obedience. I argued to my father that a gentle flock follows without question, but she who shapes her own relationship to God must remain attentive to that relationship at every moment (I perhaps perceived this vigilance in Dickinson’s form before seeing it in her poems’ themes).

Some leap of time later, I approached related questions concerning autonomy, whether belief allows the self its own domain, and the pulsing connection between refuge and peril. These themes are taken up in “Hymnal Essay,” a poem/personal-essay hybrid about my own experience of that form. Dickinson is not the subject, and I want to stress that I make no claims to knowledge of her religious beliefs. However, her poetry is a touchstone, and I hope readers will feel its presence in this work.

Have a read—and a listen:

To read “Hymnal Essay,” download a PDF document.

To listen to “Hymnal Essay,” visit our Video and Media page.

Bio: Anna Morrison's poetry has appeared in journals such as BOMB, Interim, Puerto del Sol, Shampoo, and Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women. Her poems won the LUMINA and Prism Review poetry prizes and have been finalists for prizes from Omnidawn, The Iowa Review, and Ahsahta Press. Passionate about small-press publishing, she’s helped make some beautiful books as an editor for Kelsey Street Press, and currently works as an Editorial Consultant and Marketing Associate for Omnidawn Publishing. She is an MFA candidate at Saint Mary’s College of CA and lives with her partner in the Santa Cruz Mountains.


Antietam/Sharpsburg.American Battlefield Trust.

Emily Dickinson and The Church.The Emily Dickinson Museum.

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862

Harper's Monthly, September 1862

Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862


Gilpin, W. Clark. Religion Around Emily Dickinson. Penn State University Press, 2014.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. “New England Puritan Heritage.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 46-55.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Second ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004, 10-12, 49-59.

Seelbinder, Emily. “Religion and Religious Criticism.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 245-46.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 19-27.

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September 17-23, 1862: Translation

This week we explore the subject of Dickinson in translation and her international reputation by focusing on the early and relatively unknown work of Dutch novelist, poet and essayist Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971), who translated some of Dickinson’s poems into Dutch and wrote a long critical essay admiring her, with a reflection on the challenges of translation by Dickinson’s current German translator Gunhild Kübler.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography/An Interview with Jedi Noordegraaf
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Gunhild Kübler

This week we explore the subject of Dickinson in translation and her international reputation by focusing on the early and relatively unknown work of Dutch novelist, poet and essayist Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971), with a reflection from  Dickinson’s current German translator, Gunhild Kübler. We discovered this work when we stumbled on the arresting portrait of Dickinson by the Dutch artist Jedi Noordegraaf, featured here. Drawn by its whimsical intensity and the deep appreciation of Dickinson’s life and work it expresses, we contacted Jedi to find out what drew him to Dickinson and how he learned about her work. You can read that interview in “This Week in Biography.” This led us to explore the difficult art of poetic translation and how Dickinson’s work fares in other languages and cultures.

In the course of our conversation with Jedi, we learned that Dickinson was popularized in the Netherlands by Simon Vestdijk, the eminent Dutch writer and poet who translated and wrote about Dickinson and other American writers. Following this lead, we discovered a long essay Vestidijk wrote and published in a Dutch journal in 1932-33, twenty years before Thomas Johnson brought out his Complete Poems in 1955.

Working from the regularized collections of poems published by Mabel Todd and Thomas Higginson and Martha Bianchi’s small edited collection, The Single Hound (1914) and her Complete Poems (1924), Vestdijk perceived Dickinson’s poetic brilliance and modernist innovations and publicized his appreciation just at the time her reputation was consolidating internationally. We will dip into Vestdijk’s essay and sample his insightful readings of a kindred poetic spirit who, he concludes,

has hardly been afforded the place she deserves, a place among the great originals of world literature, who can still have some significance for us.

“Words Could Satisfy the Heart”

The Springfield Republican, September 20, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“We are in the heat and fury of the great struggle. The rebellion, having gathered all its strength for a last effort before our new armies could be brought into the field, has sent its invading legions northward and westward to subjugate the loyal people of the Union on their own soil. This impudent purpose has been formally avowed by the rebel congress, and the entire armed force of the South has been gathered into the two invading columns for the effort.”

Courage and Cheerfulness, page 2
“There is no cheaper way of doing good than by cultivating a cheerful, hopeful spirit. It is a virtue that brings its own reward, and unlike certain other virtues, the reward comes at once, without delay. We have only to gather the roses instead of the thorns in the garden of life; both are always there.”

Lamartine’s Abstract Woman, page 6
Lamartine thus describes her: ‘Woman, with weaker passions than man, is superior to him in soul. The Gauls attributed to her an additional sense—the divine sense. They were right; nature has given women two painful heavenly gifts which distinguish them, and often raise them above human nature—compassion and enthusiasm. By compassion they devote themselves, by enthusiasm they exalt themselves. What more does heroism require? They have more heart and more imagination than man.’”

Poetry, page 6: “Words” [by Charles Swain, from Poems, Roberts Brothers, 1871. Charles Swain (4 January 1801 – 22 September 1874) was an English poet and engraver]
Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“A collection of second-rate witticisms is the dreariest of all dull reading. Articles that, occurring singly in the corner of a journal, may excite a good-natured smile, when presented collectively as a volume are ignored by the busy, repelled by the thoughtful, and only welcome by the frivolous and idle. Laughter, to be beneficent and healthful, should be the ripple on the surface of an onward-flowing stream, not the succession of circles made by dropping pebbles in a pond.”

The Hampshire Gazette, September 23, 1862

Literary: Review of Our Little Ones in Heaven, page 1 [probably the collection edited by Walter Aimwell (1822-1859), Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1858, perhaps reissued. But we also find: Our Little Ones in Heaven: A Collection of Thoughts in Prose and Verse edited with Intro by the Late Rev. Henry Robbins, M.A. London: Sampson Low, Son, and Co. Ludgate Hill. 1858. Shows how popular this subject was!]

“This is a judicious selection of poetry and prose written upon the subject of infant deaths. There are in it words of consolation and sympathy for the mourner that will command it to the bereaved and the afflicted.”

International News, page 2
“The average number of suicides in France is nearly three thousand a year. Official statistics show that in the thirty-two years from 1827 to 1858 inclusive, upwards of ninety-two thousand persons killed themselves.”

Harper’s Monthly, September 1862

The Language and Poetry of Smoke, page 499
“The language of smoke is far more varied than is generally imagined, and its poetry rich and plentiful. Although we usually connect the idea of smoke with that of evanescence, it is symbolical of life and activity, and its universality presents very many curious points of interest to the inquirer. There is no habit or custom known to humanity that has ever exhibited such tenacity of life, and has opposed such powerful resistance to the attacks of its opponents as that of smoking."

“My letter to the World”

From what we can tell, Dickinson did some translation from Latin in the course of her studies and studied German for a while until her instructor left. She also read some texts in translation. In his list of her reading, Jack Capps includes, for example, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, George Sand’s Mauprat and Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. And though Dickinson avidly consumed writing about foreign places in journals and newspapers, she didn’t engage much with translation into other languages as a literary form as did, for instance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of her role models. Still, Dickinson describes herself writing “my letter to the World,” (F519, J441), not just to Amherst, New England or the USA.

Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958)
Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958)

And in fact, Dickinson’s work has made its way around the globe. In his survey of Dickinson translations and her reception internationally, Domhnall Mitchell dates the earliest known translation to 1898 when four of Dickinson's poems appeared in German in the Illinois Staats-Zeitung. Immediately after the publication of The Single Hound in 1914, several poems appeared in Spanish translated by the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1956. While Mitchell doesn’t mention Simon Vestdijk’s translations or essay of 1932, he notes that Dickinson’s international reputation solidified by the 1930s with the publication of Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s Complete Poems and Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, both in 1924.

Jedi Noordegraaf
Jedi Noordegraaf

We will talk more about the complicated politics of translation in the Poems section. Here, we share with you our interview with Jedi Noordegraaf, a Dutch illustrator and graphic designer who works under the name Studio Vandaar and whose haunting rendition of Dickinson started us on this journey of searching for the poet in far-away places.

White Heat: Where did you get the inspiration for your beautiful and detailed portrait of Emily Dickinson?
Jedi Noordegraaf: My inspiration started with an idea to make a series of portraits of people that I admire. I wanted to make portraits that illustrate the essence of someone’s work and life. I started with the portrait of Emily Dickinson, since she is one of the greatest poets for me. For me, the essence of Emily is: a rich inner world, hidden from the outside world, full of life, plants and birds. Of course, this relates to her life in reclusive isolation.

WH: Are you familiar with her poetry, her letters, her life, and if so, how did you learn about her?
JN: Yes, I am familiar with most of her work and became more familiar with her life while doing research for the portrait. It started for me when I was 20 years old and came across a little book of poems in a second-hand bookshop in my hometown Ede. I was immediately visually attracted by the special use of dashes and capital letters. Her poems are punctual and crisp – I love that. That's why they have a certain incomprehensibility, a kind of mysticism: you can interpret them in many ways. After that first booklet, I collected most of her work.

WH: What is your favorite poem of hers and why?
Growth of Man – like Growth of Nature –
Gravitates within –
Atmosphere, and Sun endorse it –
But it stir – alone –

Each – its difficult Ideal
Must achieve – Itself –
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life –

Effort – is the sole condition –
Patience of Itself –
Patience of opposing forces –
And intact Belief –

Looking on – is the Department
Of its Audience –
But Transaction – is assisted
By no Countenance – (F790A, J750, 1863)

For me, this poem is about growth that happens in silence. That is quite a truthful observation, I think, and I recognize it in my own life. I start my day in silence; reading some poetry or texts from a prayer book. Simply: being with God, being quiet, thinking things over. Emily Dickinson's poems often express the joy about art, imagination, nature, and human relationships, but in her poetic world there is also room for suffering and the struggle to evade, face, overcome, and wrest meaning from it. I think in “modern western society” there is great lack of space for suffering. I notice that we are completely focused on the happy and positive things in life, and hide the difficult things we all are experiencing. But it is not always summer, it is also autumn and winter.

In a way, Emily Dickinson’s descriptions show some sort of “mindfulness.” Dickinson used her solitude to live her real self. Her own life was silent and for a long time Dickinson lived in solitude in Amherst. In this society of entertainment, fulfilling our dreams, experiencing & consuming all the things we want, Emily helps me to stand still, and to stay in touch with myself and the things that matter to me.

WH: Elements of the portrait look like flowers she collected in her Herbarium. Are you familiar with that work and how has it influenced your view of Dickinson?
JN: Yes, I know she had an Herbarium. In a way, I think she started her “writing Poetry” with collecting flowers. From there, she started to observe nature. From her gardening, she developed her aesthetic sensibility, and her vision of the relationship between art and nature. The gardener's intimate understanding of horticulture helped to shape Emily’s choice of metaphors for every experience: love and hate, wickedness and virtue, death and immortality.

WH: You also picture the Homestead in the portrait. Have you visited and if so, how did that experience influence your imagery?
JN: Sadly not; that’s on my bucket-list if I will visit the USA someday.

WH: How is Dickinson regarded in the Netherlands? Do your friends, family, colleagues know about her work and if so, what do they think of it?
JN: Emily Dickinson is made known in Holland by Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971), one of the greatest writers of the Netherlands. All her poems were translated by translator Peter Verstegen, together with commentaries [Poems 1 and 2, 2005 and 2007; Collected Poems 2011]. Willem Wilmink (1936-2003), a poet himself, translated some poems as well but did that with a more personal interpretation. Some friends & family love her poetry also, some don’t, some even don’t know her.

WH: How does Dickinson speak to you as an artist in the 21st century? What specifically about her work or life resonates with you?
JN: I like the mysticism in her life and poetry. Another connection is that as an illustrator, I’m also working mostly “alone,” in solitude. She, like me, also is a wrestler. She went off the beaten path, and for me as an illustrator, I’m always searching for a concept that is new, a different “angle” or perspective.

Like Emily, I have the same desire for silence and nature. I need silence to come into a flow of creativity. I live near the national park “de hoge veluwe” [in the province of Gelderland near the cities of Ede, Wageningen, Arnhem, and Apeldoorn]; for me it’s essential to walk or ride on my bike through nature once in a while.

WH: Please tell us a bit about yourself.
JN: Jedi Noordegraaf has been working as illustrator since 2009, operating under the name Studio Vandaar. His illustrations can be described as layered and conceptual with a rich color palette. The starting point for an illustration is always the text. The purpose is to express the essence of the article so that the message is extra powerful. Jedi’s specialty is drawing editorial illustrations for various magazines as well as covers. In addition, he also works on the visual identity of products or organizations. He worked for: the beer label Tongval (illustrations, graphic design & website), the Canvas Blanco band (illustrations & formatting) and the book Desert Fathers (illustrations & visual identity), chosen to be the best Theological Book of 2015!

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Gunhild Kübler

GKublerIn the name of the Bee
And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!
(F 23A)

At first sight, this small poem (written in the year 1858 according to editor R. W. Franklin), impresses us as a merry little text, delightful and inoffensive. Yet its very last word has a blasphemous sting. It shows that this little poem is a parody of the ritual formula proceeding each and every Christian service:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen

in accordance with the dogma of the Christian Trinity.

The trinity of Bee, Butterfly and Breeze, however, is an invention of the poet. She asserts it at the end of her poem with a proud “Amen,” clearly stating that she is celebrating here her secular service of spring and nature as she often does in her poems. In this way, she turns her back on that powerful image of “our father in heaven," propagated by her Calvinistic church, the service which she abhorred since early childhood.

The acoustic glue of Dickinson’s Trinity of Spring is a threefold alliteration, which has to be preserved in the German translation. Yet this is impossible: Bee and Breeze indeed have a German equivalent in “Biene” und “Brise.” But Butterfly is the German “Schmetterling” and cannot be replaced, for example, by the German word “Butterblume” (Engl. buttercup). For Dickinson’s Bee symbolizes the love and potency of the Father, her Butterfly alludes to the metamorphosis of the resurrected Son, and the Breeze refers to the Pentecostal blowing of the Holy Spirit. That is why “Butterblume” (in spite of its beautiful double alliteration) cannot replace Butterfly.  Translation means negotiating and weighing gains and losses. To gain an additional B-alliteration here can never make up for the loss of the symbolic aura of Dickinson's butterfly.

Im Namen der Biene –
Und des Schmetterlings –
Und der Brise – Amen!


bio: Gunhild Kübler, born in 1944, studied German and English literature in Heidelberg, Berlin and Zurich. She earned her doctorate with Peter von Matt. Subsequently, she worked as a literary critic for the Swiss radio and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. She was the editor of Weltwoche and writes today for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Sunday. From 1990 to 2006 Gunhild Kübler was also a member of the critics' team of the program "Literaturclub" by Schweizer Fernsehen. She lives in Zurich. In 2015, she published the first complete German edition of Emily Dickinson's 1800 poems, Emily Dickinson: Sämtliche Gedichte.



Vestdijk, Simon. “On the Poet Emily Dickinson.” Trans. Peter Tydell (2002). Forum 5 and 6, 1932/3.

Hampshire Gazette, September 23, 1862

Harper's Monthly, September 1862

Springfield Republican, September 20, 1862

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966.147-88.

Mitchell, Domhnall. “Translation and International Reception.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 343-350.

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September 10-16, 1862: Higginson’s “The Life of Birds”

This week in 1862, Dickinson most likely read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay, “The Life of Birds,” in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly. To help us explore Higginson’s essay and its influence on Dickinson’s many poems about birds, we are so pleased to welcome Christine Gerhardt author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (2014) as guest blogger this week.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Christine Gerhardt

This week in 1862, Dickinson most likely read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay, “The Life of Birds,” in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly. It is one of the many essays he published in the Atlantic later collected in a volume titled Out-door Papers (1863), which was inspired in part by his admiration for the recently deceased writer, Henry David Thoreau.

According to Christine Gerhardt, author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (2014):

Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures.

Birds Dickinson mentions by name are: bluebird, blue jay, bobolink, crow, hummingbird, lark, oriole, owl, phoebe, robin, sparrow, woodpecker and wren. To help us explore Higginson’s essay and its influence on Dickinson’s many poems about birds, we are fortunate this week to have Christine Gerhardt as a guest blogger !

Her book, A Place for Humility, is a revelation. Not just because it finds surprising and substantial links between the two major poets of the 19th century who are more often set in opposition, but on account of the exquisite and often surprising treatment of their nature poetry as poetry about real nature. We are so accustomed to reading Whitman and especially Dickinson as poets of self and consciousness who use the world as metaphor that we sometimes forget they were also keen observers of the nature around them. Christine shows why this is important. She reads their work in the context of the emerging science of ecology and environmental sensibility of the second half of the 19th century, and the result is a model of eco-criticism that also highlights the growing, pressing concerns we face today in a world of headlong and devastating climate change.

“Birds are the Poor Man’s Music”

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The rebel armies still march on. There is no longer any doubt of their intentions. They have adopted the offensive policy, and are marching straight for the free states, hoping to do such damage and create such a panic before our new levies are brought into the field as shall bring us to their feet to accept peace on their terms. They have left their coast defenseless and have massed all their available force in Virginia and Tennessee, where they are moving northward and westward.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 6
“Birds are the poor man’s music, flowers the poor man’s poetry; and the rich man has no better.”

A Mad Poetess, page 7
“In that part of the Washington asylum which is still devoted to its insane patients, Dr. Nicholas showed me a sight which was particularly touching to me. Cross-legged upon the round table in the centre of the room was seated a woman, perhaps thirty years of age, who had the remains of remarkable beauty. Her long, gray hair was disheveled, and of her dress and appearance she evidently had not a thought; but, open upon her lap was a volume from which she was pretending to read aloud, making an unintelligible and incoherent gabble. By her side lay a volume of a novel of her own writing, with her own likeness as a frontispiece, and she had gone crazy as an authoress. But what a pity is such an apparently unnecessary wreck of a lifetime of a beautiful girl, for I am told that her recovery is hopeless. Alas for the head that is to go wild with over-endowing!”

Poetry, page 6

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

"Sketch of Troops Marching" in Middleton, MD, c. Sept 14 1862. Alfred R. Waud (1828-1891). Library of Congress

Glorious Victory!!: The Enemy Fleeing in Panic, page 2
“A very severe engagement took place on Sunday last, between our forces under Gen. McClellan and the rebels under Gen. Lee. The rebels were overtaken by our troops 3 miles northwest of Middleton. Gen. Lee was wounded, and Gen. Garland was killed. Our troops pursued the enemy as fast as possible. Gen. Hooker captured a thousand prisoners, and Gen. Lee, it is said, places his own loss at 15,000, and is represented to have said that he was shockingly whipped.”

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

The Life of Birdsby Thomas Higginson, page 368
“When one thinks of a bird, one fancies a soft, swift, aimless, joyous thing, full of nervous energy and arrowy motions—a song with wings. So remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language; and men only stare at their darting, inexplicable ways, as at the gyrations of the circus. Watch their little traits for hours, and it only tantalizes curiosity. Every man’s secret is penetrable, if his neighbor be sharp-sighted. But this bird that hovers and alights beside me, peers up at me, takes its food, then looks again, attitudinizing, jerking, flirting its tail, with a thousand inquisitive and fantastic motions—although I have the power to grasp it in my hand and crush its life out, yet I cannot gain its secret thus, and the centre of its consciousness is really farther from mine than the remotest planetary orbit.”

“Small, like the Wren”

                                                                   by Christine Gerhardt

Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures. In many of her letters, she identified with birds intensely, engaging some of her culture’s more conventional views of birds while also reshaping these views in provocative ways.

Consider, for instance, her famous epistolary self-portrait, sent to Higginson in the summer of 1862, close to the cultural moment that this week’s blog focuses on:

I […] am small, like the Wren; and my hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur; and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves. (L268)

This snapshot echoes culturally condoned claims of female modesty, yet it also links being small to a transgressive sense of natural-cultural boldness. Just days later, she wrote to her friends the Hollands :

My business is to love. I found a bird, this morning down – down – on a little bush at the foot of the garden, and wherefore sing, I said, since nobody hears? One sob in the throat, one flutter of bosom—‘My business is to sing’ – and away she rose! (L269)

Here, the common association between birds and delicate, humble song begins to suggest a somewhat precarious relationship to Dickinson’s own audience, and a necessary, albeit melancholy sense of artistic independence. And when she wrote to her young cousins,

I think the bluebirds do their work exactly like me. They dart around just so, with little dodging feet, and look so agitated. I really feel for them, they seem to be so tired (L339),

she merged a Victorian woman’s practiced compassion for the small with a subdued sense of crisis regarding women’s work, and, maybe, even with concern over the fate of birds in the increasingly cultivated landscapes of New England, undercutting her time’s widespread notions of birds’ cuteness and childlike innocence.

Thus, the numerous birds in Dickinson’s letters and poems form a nodal point of her deep connection with the world around her, from which she drew inspiration and to which she responded so intensely. Orioles and phoebes, hummingbirds and jays were among the many non-human creatures she frequently encountered during her explorations of Amherst’s fields and forests as a girl and young adult, and even when her outward life became more and more secluded, she kept meeting birds in the extensive family gardens.

Birds were also part of Dickinson’s life through various environmental discourses that intensified in the mid-nineteenth century, also and especially in her native New England. For one, the newly specialized natural sciences not only included astronomy, botany, chemistry, and geology, which Dickinson studied at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke, but also the somewhat younger discipline of ornithology, which her textbooks discussed under the more general rubrics of Natural Philosophy and Natural History. (More indirectly, birds were also discussed in her immediate vicinity when renowned geologist and natural theologian Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College discovered thousands of fossil dinosaur footprints in the Connecticut valley, insisting they stem from flightless birds.)

"Red-tailed Hawk" from Birds of New England and Adjacent States by Edward Augustus Samuel, 1875

Second, Dickinson kept herself informed about the latest developments in natural history, including the emerging field of ornithology, through her avid readings of the Springfield Republican, Harper’s New Monthly, Scribner’s Monthly, and, especially, the Atlantic Monthly. These newspapers and periodicals carried not only reviews of Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1845-1862), with its massive notes on diverse bird populations of South America, and of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), which was inspired by his discovery of the Galapagos finches, but also of Edward A. Samuels' Ornithology and Oölogy of New England (1867) and the popular field guide The Birds of New England (1869).

And third, Dickinson was deeply familiar with the time’s popular genre of natural history essays, dozens, if not hundreds of which focused on birds – from Wilson Flagg’s “Birds of the Night” (1859) to Olive Thorne Miller’s “A Tricksy Spirit” (1885). Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “Life of Birds” (1862), which this week’s post focuses on, was among its most influential examples, and Dickinson probably read it in the September issue of the 1862 Atlantic Monthly and owned it in book form, as part of Higginson’s Out-Door Papers (1863).

These seemingly innocent, largely descriptive bird essays are noteworthy for their combination of detailed description, moral instruction, and spiritual reflections, and also for their early conservationist arguments – years before the American Ornithologists’ Union (founded in 1883) and the National Audubon Society (1886) emphasized the need to protect various bird species from the threat of extinction through hunters, farmers, and the millinery trade.                                                     

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Christine Gerhardt

New England Robin
New England Robin

It’s a fascinating exercise to go back and forth between Higginson’s essay and the bird poems Dickinson wrote around the same time. Dickinson knew the essay well, and critics have pointed out that she saw Higginson’s nature essays as a “firm bond between them” (Habegger 453). If her poems can be read as answers to his question about what literature could do “towards describing one summer day” (Habegger 453), these answers are much more unruly than they seem, especially regarding the earth’s smallest life forms.

More generally, the dialog between Higginson’s essays and Dickinson’s poems reveals noteworthy similarities in their proto-ecological attention to natural detail and the dynamic relationships between species and their environments, as well as a shared eco-ethical humility. It also highlights how boldly Dickinson’s poetic snapshots pushed beyond his learned, sentimental, moralistic prose, mediating between exultant gestures of identification and the recognition of nature’s difference without resolving the tension, and embracing scientific nomenclature and conventions without assuming interpretive control, even at moments of highest achievement.

Higginson’s bird essay accentuates a related but different quality of Dickinson’s ecopoetics, which has to do with their shared interest in birds’ large-scale, unsettling movement. I don’t mean their fluttering about, or their sheer ability to fly – of course birds are mobile – but movement of a different order. Higginson begins by stating that

so remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language,

viewing birds’ global, even cosmic motions as key to their life and tantalizing elusiveness. Just as remarkably, he casts New England as a hub of such wide-ranging movements:

[Migration] is, of course, a universal instinct, since even tropical birds migrate for short distances from the equator, so essential to their existence do these wanderings seem. But in New England, among birds as among men, the roving habit seems unusually strong, and abodes are shifted very rapidly.

Yet in spite of his focus on birds’ migrations, and the recognition that one cannot “know” a single hummingbird (an “exiled pigmy prince, banished, but still regal”) or swallow (“the strange emigrant from the far West”), his text is driven by the impulse to grasp these “images of airy motion.”


Ultimately, he imaginatively contains all of his birds through detailed descriptions, “translations” of their song, and allusions to their good habits, monogamy, and parental instincts, claiming that “[a]mong all created things, the birds come nearest to man in their domesticity.”

Dickinson’s bird poems turn this tension between birds’ mobility and their apparent domesticity on its head, most memorably, perhaps, in “A Bird came down the Walk – .” Initially, this genteel robin leisurely strolls through a garden, yields the right of way, and drinks delicately. Yet its final flight undoes all of this scene’s assumptions. In the speaker’s New England garden, this robin is increasingly out of place: “frightened” and nervous from the third stanza on, its flight, for all its ephemeral softness, marks an escape into an unbounded realm where it is actually at “home.” As the speaker’s attempt to care for and feed the robin fails, so does the poem’s effort to symbolically domesticate it: here, tame birds are not to be had, and even sharing a place with them is fraught with tensions.

Less directly, this inter-species encounter gone wrong also renders the garden and its boundaries fluid. Commonly idealized as delimited space where cultivation recreates heaven on earth, this garden is crossed by birds and other animals who will forever re-wild it. As such, this bird’s final flight also undermines humankind’s larger efforts to domesticate all that seems “too wild” in this world. In this, we can imagine Dickinson talking back to her naturalist friend Higginson, who would later remember his meeting with her by posing as an ornithologist yielding (at least some of) his systems of control:

I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun.

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

bio: Christine Gerhardt is Professor of American Studies at the University of Bamberg, Germany. She is the author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (U of Iowa P, 2014) and Rituale des Scheiterns: Die Reconstruction-Periode im US-amerikanischen Roman (Winter Verlag, 2003). She is also the editor of The American Novel of the Nineteenth Century (2018) and one of the co-editors of Religion in the United States (2011). Her essays have appeared in Profession, ESQ, The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Mississippi Quarterly, and the Forum for Modern Language Studies.


Gerhardt, Christine. A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

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August 27-September 2, 1862: Home

This week in 1862 the Springfield Republican published an article under the eye-catching title “Immigration to Be Encouraged.” Given our present-day conflicts about immigration and the ongoing tragedy of separating immigrant parents and children, we decided to focus this week on the image of “home” in Dickinson’s life, thinking and writing, and what it means to be or feel homeless.

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

This week in 1862 the Springfield Republican published an article under the eye-catching title “Immigration to Be Encouraged.” This fact was rather surprising in a largely homogenous white and Protestant nation, which experienced anti-immigrant riots in the 1840s and 1850s, as well as the rise of the Know-Nothing Party, whose dominant issue was restricting immigration. But apparently, according to the Republican,

almost every farming town, and especially in the West, has exhausted all its available labor and the cry is for more men to cultivate the fields.

Given our present-day conflicts about immigration and the ongoing tragedy of separating immigrant parents and children, we decided to focus this week on the image of “home” in Dickinson’s life, thinking and writing, and what it means to be or feel homeless.

Emblem of the Know Nothing Party 1844-1860
Emblem of the Know Nothing Party 1844-1860

Several prominent literary scholars and psychologists—Gaston Bachelard, Kenneth Burke, Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson to name a few—have explored what Jean McClure Mudge calls “the reverberatory power of this central symbol” of home in our culture and literature. For psychologist Erikson,

the optimum sense of identity is to possess a feeling of at homeness.

In 1975, Mudge applied some of these writers' insights to Dickinson’s extensive use of this image and found that it

is perhaps the most penetrating and comprehensive figure she employs, [emerging] as a unique and unifying touchstone to several facets of the poet’s consciousness.

Mudge also sees a “universality” in Dickinson’s

situation, which was sometimes, if not gnawingly, to feel out-of-place as woman and writer, in short, homeless.

Sill, Mudge notes how frequently other writers of the time—Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, for example—expressed a similar feeling, and how “it seems to be the hallmark of our own day.” By exploring Dickinson’s many homes and houses—of nature, the body, the mind, poetry, memory, God—and their layered associations, we might illuminate our own fraught experiences of home and away.

“Praesidium et Dulce Decus”

Springfield Republican, August 30, 2018

Progress of the War, page 1
“The withdrawal of Gen. McClellan’s army from the James [River], while our army in eastern Virginia was on the banks of the Rapids involved great and obvious hazards. It gave the rebel leaders the best opportunity they could desire to throw their entire force against the smallest division of our army and annihilate before the army from the James could arrive to the rescue, and they were not slow to see and to seize their opportunity. But this had been foreseen and provided against as fully as could be. Gen. Pope made a quick and unmolested retreat from the Rapids to the Rappahannock, where he could make a better defense against the vastly superior members.”

Immigration to Be Encouraged, page 2
“The recent letter of Secretary Seward addressed to J.N. Gamble of Cincinnati, in which the subject of aid in our farming and industrial pursuits from foreign laborers is presented, is the key-note to a matter of vast and growing importance in our country, especially the West. The letter was in reply to a suggestion of Mr. Gamble that special efforts should be made to make up for a deficiency in laborers by encouraging immigration. We are glad that the foresight of our secretary anticipated the need, for almost every farming town, and especially in the West, has exhausted all its available labor and the cry is for more men to cultivate the fields.”

Feminine Advisers, page 6
“It is a wonderful advantage to a man, in every pursuit or avocation, to secure an adviser in a sensible woman. In woman there is at once a subtle delicacy of tact, and a plain soundness of judgment, which are rarely combined to an equal degree in man. A woman, if she really be your friend, will have a sensitive regard for your character, honor, repute. Female friendship is to man, ‘praesidium et dulce decus’—bulwark, sweetener, ornament of his existence. To his mental culture it is invaluable; without it all his knowledge of books will never give him knowledge of the world.”

Hampshire Gazette, September 2, 1862

Curious Case of Superstition, page 1
“A widow lady in Paris, aged about sixty-three, was accustomed to spend several hours every day before the altar dedicated to St. Paul in a neighboring church. Some villains, observing her extreme weakness, resolved, as she was known to be very rich, to share her wealth. One of them accordingly concealed himself between the carved work of the altar, and when no person but the old lady was there, he contrived to throw a letter right before her. She took it up, supposing it to be a miracle. In this she was more confirmed when she saw it signed ‘Paul, the Apostle,’ expressing the satisfaction he received by her prayers addressed to him, when so many newly canonized saints engrossed the devotion of the world and robbed the primitive saints of their wonted adoration.”

A Nice Girl, page 1
“There is nothing half so sweet in life, half so beautiful, or delightful, or so lovable as a ‘nice girl.’ Not a pretty, or a dashing, or an elegant girl, but a nice girl. One of those lovely, lively, good-tempered, good-hearted, sweet-faced, amiable, neat, natty, domestic creatures met within the sphere of home, diffusing around the domestic hearth the influence of her goodness, like the essence of sweet flowers.”

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

The New Gymnastics, page 129 by Dr. Dio Lewis (1823-1886)
“The common remark, that parents are too much absorbed in the accomplishments of their daughters to give any attention to their health, is absurd. Mothers know that the happiness of their girls, as well as the character of their settlement in life turns more upon health and exuberance of spirits than upon French and music. To suppose that, while thousands are freely given for their accomplishments, hundreds would be refused for bodily health and bloom, is to doubt the parents’ sanity.

“Home, Sweet Home!”

Of all the poets in an age that idealized home and associated women with domestic space, Dickinson is probably the one most closely associated with a house and home. Given that at some point in the 1860s, she started not leaving the Homestead, the gracious house her grandfather built and her father expanded and moved the family back into in 1855 after being forced to leave for a humiliating period of fifteen years. “Home” was a pervasive cultural icon of this period of growing industrialization and civil conflict. So redolent of peace and security that, according to Patrick Browne, popular songs like “Home, Sweet Home!” were banned in the Union Army camps because they incited desertions. To this day, and thanks to the loving curation of the Homestead’s buildings and grounds (pictured above), Dickinson is closely associated with this place, the literal house where she wrote all but a few of her poems and many of her letters.

But “home” was also a fraught space for Dickinson. She mentioned “emigrant” twice in her letters, both times in relation to the Homestead, suggesting that she experienced being a kind of immigrant at her home. In a letter to her dear friend Elizabeth Holland written in January 1856, Dickinson describes the move from the family’s Pleasant Street home to the Homestead, all of a block and a half away, in humorous terms with a cutting edge:

It is a kind of gone-to-Kansas feeling, and if I sat in a long wagon, with my family tied behind, I should suppose without doubt I was a party of emigrants!
They say that “home is where the heart is.” I think it is where the house is, and the adjacent buildings (L 182).

According to Patricia Thompson-Rizzo, who does a thorough reading of this complicated letter, Dickinson may be alluding to the sentiments if not the words of John Greenleaf Whittier's 1854 poem, "Song of the Kansas Emigrants,” which also contains the resonant term “Homestead:”

We cross the prairies, as of old
Our fathers crossed the sea;
To make the West as they the East
The Homestead of the Free.

At the time of this move, Dickinson’s father Edward was a congressman and proponent of the manifest destiny embodied in the immigration to Kansas, also known as “Bloody Kansas,” the site of bitter controversy and strife over the legality of slavery. Thompson-Rizzo concludes:

Reluctantly dragged to the neoclassically refurbished Homestead, Dickinson exposes the myth [of manifest destiny] so keenly lived by her father, [thus] providing an overt, albeit imaginative critique of the expansionist aims underlying the cult of domesticity as recently deconstructed by Amy Kaplan.

The second mention of emigrants comes in a June 1869 letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

You noticed my dwelling alone -To an Emigrant, Country is idle except it be his own (L330).

Dickinson did not dwell “alone,” but was very much a part of her family's life. In some ways, though, Dickinson still felt like an immigrant in her father’s house or, at least, wanted Higginson to believe so. She recognized and sympathized with the emigrant’s sense of loss and “idleness” in a strange land.

Over her life, Dickinson made many more striking assertions about her home and the concept of home especially in her letters. For example, in 1851 she wrote to her brother Austin, away at school, about the Dickinsons’ second home on Pleasant Street (which was later razed): “Home is a holy thing” (L59). In 1870, she wrote to a friend congratulating him on his marriage, saying: “Home is the definition of God” (L355). In 1875, she wrote to Maria Whitney: “Consciousness is the only home of which we now know. That sunny adverb had been enough were it not foreclosed” (L591). As Jean Mudge remarks, enclosures like houses and bodies and coffins were never far in Dickinson’s world from “closures,” endings, separations, death. Perhaps most famously, in 1876, Dickinson sent this resonant declaration to Thomas Higginson:

Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House that tries to be haunted (L459a).

Homes and houses abound in the poetry as well. One of Dickinson’s speakers declares, “I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose –” (F466A, J657) and another tells how she is exploring “Vesuvius at Home” (F1691A, J1705).

Scholars who work on Dickinson’s images of home and houses approach them from different directions: as an index of her attitude towards space and her body; as forms of containment; as structuring images; as “a sheltering framework;” as a metaphor for “breaking down the boundaries of consciousness.” All link her physical experiences of houses with her metaphysical concerns, which raises her poetry of domestic space to existential heights. As J. Brooks Bouson explains it, the house image

explores her Chinese-box view of reality: the soul or the mind of the poet is in the body which dwells in a house (in Amherst). That house, in turn, is contiguous to nature's house which borders on the heavenly home. Her special complication in considering this topic is that Dickinson uses the image in a paradoxical sense: that which is finite is replete with the infinite.

This is what Dickinson calls her “Compound Vision -/ Light enabling Light – The Finite furnished with the Infinite” (F830A, J906). Exploring these boundaries, according to Bouson, Dickinson “is paradoxically both released and confined in safety or as a prisoner.” The downside to this is that she can never achieve a resolution or synthesis

but only unresolved paradox as she uses her art to define the space she occupies and to bring into focus different planes of reality which are simultaneously remote and near.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Eliot Cardinaux

Passing, Exaltation, Pastorale


That wood in the wind clatters
slowly as laughter yawns
in the belly of weeping,

that the pain splits the earth
in her laughing,
the same two masks

which pale as noon marble
into sunset, crowding
the dome with shadow,

that heap in her folds,
to measure like wings, and
swallow a dream between.


On nature a dying love is placed;
she melts over the pines,
her shadow waxen.

An emblem of guilt
we embrace,
he invented the mind.

Like sinew, her wings’ acting
comfort the will
demands graces,

like thistle below a sign,
somewhere an action
we keep still.


Odd, how her soft-
spoken, uncanny
twin and the wicked

tresses dye in
the midday sun;
it bleaches dust on

too — she’s
gone to market, slown
down like

cartwheels in
a gloaming

Today I was surprised and very excited to receive an email from the poet and scholar Ivy Schweitzer that my recent poems, “Passing, Exaltation, Pastorale,” were published as this week’s reflection on White Heat, an online Dartmouth publication about Emily Dickinson.
Since I had sent the poems but wasn’t anticipating them being published on such short notice, I decided to write a prose reflection in addition to the verse she published. The topic of this week’s entry on White Heat is “Home.” Since, as you will see, the events that correlate on this week in 1862 pertain to immigration, and Ivy decided to focus on homelessness, I though I’d share this.
The rents are rising. Homelessness is on the rise as a statistic. Or I might be wrong, but I notice myself more aware of my privilege every time I walk to the store, and of the precariousness of that position in society: that of having a roof over one’s head. As I settle into a new living situation (I’ve been in Western Massachusetts, the town over from Dickinson's hometown of Amherst, for just over a month), I have felt the contention of the forces of capitalism at its decay quite potently, to put it mildly. Not having bus fare. Having to work odd jobs to scrape by. These are not news to me. But all around me I see people struggling. From the man who sleeps out back of the Amherst bookstore where I work, who asked to put in the good word. He was trying. To the hobos that lay under the bridge a block from my house in Northampton. I often stop off with a bottle of water or a nip, and hand them a couple of cigarettes. I can hardly afford it.
The fact that helping people sustain basic needs puts me in jeopardy is a good thing because it teaches me the lesson of what it means to go without. In an age where those in power are taking everything for themselves, including the rights of citizens to their own citizenship, it is empowering to learn how to survive with the bare minimum, and I think it deepens the empathy I have for people who are living this as a constant, often not by choice. As we near the third decade of what was once a new century, I find it poised within me to stand guard over people who have less because I know how it feels. 
I just wanted to share that in terms of what this is teaching me; I think I have a long way to go, but that accepting this life has taught me that I’m not alone.
Enjoy the poems, peruse the blog (Ivy has put together a great project on a phenomenal poet), and think a little on others. It will do you good.

Bio: Eliot Cardinaux
Poet, Pianist, Multimedia Artist


Mudge, Jean McClure. Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975, xvii-xviii, 1, 13.

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 2, 1862

Springfield Republican, August 30, 1862


Browne, Patrick. “‘Auld Lang Syne’ Banned.” Historical Digression. January 2, 2011.

Bouson, J. Brooks. “Emily Dickinson and the Riddle of Containment.” Emily Dickinson Bulletin 31 (1977), 33-35.

Mudge, Jean McClure. Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975, 6-7.

Thompson-Rizzo, Patricia. “Gone-to-Kansas: A Reading of Dickinson's L182.” RSA Journal 14, 2003: 17-35, 21-22.

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July 30-Aug 5, 1862: Wealth, Class, and Economics

This week we take our cue from a column in the Hampshire Gazette on “Power and Money” and an essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on “Economy” to focus on wealth and class in relation to Emily Dickinson and her use of economic imagery in her poetry.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Christian Haines

""This week we take our cue from a column in the Hampshire Gazette titled “Power of Money” and an essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on “Economy” to focus on wealth, class, and economics in relation to Emily Dickinson.

Martha Nell Smith notes:

In studies of Emily Dickinson and her family, class is one of the most underinvestigated topics.

The essay in  Atlantic Monthly suggests a reason for this:

in America none will admit that they have any particular station, or that they can live above it. The principle of democratic equality unites in society people of the most diverse positions and means.

It is important to note that this essay, part of a series about the changes wrought by the war economy on the American household, was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe under the pseudonym “Christopher Crowfield.” And that even in progressive outlets like the Atlantic Monthly, women writers still felt it necessary to publish under male pseudonyms—perhaps especially when they were discussing economics.

Dickinson came of age during a period of shifting economic and social trends, what Robert Merideth calls “The Age of Enterprise [and] the Rise of Finance Capitalism.” Her grandfather, father, and brother were each known as the “Squire” of Amherst, a title that recognizes their active involvement in the town’s development and membership in New England’s conservative political and social elite. Dickinson and her sister Lavinia were not expected to work, have a profession or earn money. But the Dickinson family’s financial history was fraught with instability. The small town community, in which their status harked back to earlier pastoral forms of social hierarchy, was changing and, as we will see, those changes register in Dickinson’s experience of class and economic necessity, inflected by her gender and her racial identity.

Economic changes also register in Dickinson’s poetry. Merideth estimates that at least 10 % of Dickinson’s poems employ “the language of economics,” but scholars are divided on how she used this discourse and to what end. Famous poems like “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –” (F788, J709, 1863)  and her refusal to enter the print publication market of her day bolster the view of Dickinson as an elitist and Romantic who placed herself and “art” above the worldliness of commerce. Other approaches explore her investment in and commentary on economics, her evolving class consciousness, and her commitment to democracy’s notion of the sovereign individual.

“Power of Money”

Springfield Republican, August 2, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“There is now a prospect of immediate activity in Virginia. Gen. Pope has taken the field with the intention to find Jackson and compel him to fight, or to push on directly towards Richmond on the north. Some movement to be made by Gen. McClellan’s army, but in what direction is not yet apparent.”


Martin Van Buren, page 2

“The death of the ex-president has been mentioned by telegraph. He died on Thursday morning at Lindenwold, his homestead, near Kinderhook, N.Y.”

Poetry: “The Water Drinker’s Song,” page 6

I drink with a noble company—
With all the stately trees
That spread their leafy shade abroad,
And flutter in the breeze;
The playful breeze,
That loves to please
My comrades great and small;
I’ll drink at ease
Pure draughts with these—
They’re water-drinkers all.

Aimless Lives, page 7
“There are the most unfortunate persons, who are by their parents’ wealth released from their responsibility of industry—the spoiled children of the rich. Wealth in parents’ hands may enlarge the bounds of opportunity without destroying the motives in the child of industry and sagacity and perseverance; but he is a wise parent who knows both how to earn and how to hold the administration of his wealth in such a way as that he shall not destroy by these motives in his child.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 7
“The world never admits a writer is inspired till he has expired.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 5, 1862

Power of Money, page 1
“The power of money is on the whole overestimated. Riches are oftener an impediment than a stimulus for action; and in many cases they are quite as much a misfortune as a blessing. The youth who inherits wealth is apt to have life made too easy for him, and he soon grows sated with it, because he has nothing left to desire.”

The Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

“Headquarters of Beer Drinking,” page 185
“Besides the four elements known to us as air, fire, earth, and water, there is a liquid substance not entirely unknown in our country, which, in the kingdom of Bavaria, is sometimes called the fifth element, under the specific name of beer.”


House and Home Papers: “Economy,” by Christopher Crowfield [pseudonym for Harriet Beecher Stowe], page 230

“I think there is a peculiar temptation in a life organized as ours in America. There are here no settled classes, with similar ratios of income. Mixed together in the same society, going to the same parties, and blended in daily neighborly intercourse, are families of the most opposite extremes in point of fortune. In England there is a very well understood expression, that people should not dress or live above their station; in America none will admit that they have any particular station, or that they can live above it. The principle of democratic equality unites in society people of the most diverse positions and means.”

“‘The Almighty Dollar’”

There is little doubt that Dickinson occupied a privileged class position and knew it. She also likely perceived how unstable and threatened that position was.


Edward, Dickinson’s father, struggled in his early years to make up for his father Samuel’s financial insolvency, caused largely by his investment in the establishment of Amherst Academy and Amherst College. Samuel built the imposing “Homestead,” also known in town as “the mansion,” but Edward had to move his family out while he established his law practice. He lost money in the Panic of 1837, but eventually recouped his losses with investments in land. The Dickinsons did not move back until he could repurchase the house in 1855 and expand and refurbish it. Strongly civic-minded, Edward served as treasurer of Amherst College and helped bring the railroad to Amherst, which increased mail service.


His first born son, Austin, also became a lawyer and civic leader in Amherst. When Austin married Susan Gilbert in 1856, Edward insured their proximity by building them The Evergreens, a distinctive Italianate villa next door, which they furnished with contemporary art work. When drafted during the Civil War, Austin purchased a substitute for himself at the price of $500. Both Dickinson families hosted many famous guests and held annual social events like the Amherst College Commencement Day dinner and Sue’s famous evening salons and musicales.

Dickinson’s consciousness of class was shaped by her family’s position and what biographer Richard Sewall refers to as the family’s tendency to snobbery and satire, but also by her experiences of her gender and race. She had an observant and satirical eye for social mores, and her comments in her letters, especially to Austin, are often biting and condescending. She makes disparaging remarks about Irish immigrants, soldiers who come to the house, African Americans who worked for her family, the working poor, the girls at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary who weren’t quite up to the “Amherst standard,” and, in fact, anyone not in her intimate circle. In June 1853, she complained to Austin about the many visitors her father entertains brought by the new railroad to Amherst and characterizes them as:

the high and the low, the bond and the free, the “poor in this world’s good,” and the “almighty dollar” and “what in the world are they after” continues to be unknown – But I hope they will pass away, as insects on vegetation, and let us reap together in golden harvest time —that is you and Susie and me and our dear sister Vinnie … (L 128 )

Dickinson probably quotes the arresting phrase, “the almighty dollar,” from Charles Dickens, an author she read and loved and mentions earlier in the letter. From this desire to flee the growing diversity and commercialism of Amherst and withdraw into a pastoral “golden harvest time,” many scholars depict Dickinson as a critic of this enterprising age, of the literary marketplace, and “the almighty dollar.”

For Betsy Erkkila, however, Dickinson’s critique of commercialism was made possible by her elite status. In perhaps the most condemning reading of Dickinson’s class consciousness, Erkkila argues that

Dickinson was in some sense the spokesperson and representative of older ruling class interests, [who] returned to a pre-Revolutionary and aristocratic language of rank, titles, and divine right to assert the sovereignty of her self as absolute monarch.

In Erkkila’s view, Dickinson thought herself above politics and social causes, including abolition and women’s rights, did not make common cause with other women writers, feared the body and sexuality (and, thus, the democratic masses), and ridiculed the fame and commercial success of sentimental writers. About Dickinson’s resistance to Victorian gender conventions, her refusal to marry and publish, Erkkila observes that “from the point of view of class that refusal was paradoxically grounded in the privilege of her status as the daughter of a conservative Whig squire.” Even Dickinson’s radical poetics are compromised by her privilege: 

If on the level of language Dickinson might be celebrated as a kind of literary terrorist — a "loaded Gun" and dancing "Bomb" — who blew up the social and symbolic orders of patriarchal language, it is also important that we recognize that her poetic revolution was grounded in the privilege of her class position in a conservative Whig household whose elitist, antidemocratic values were at the very center of her work.  

Although Domhnall Mitchell recognizes that Dickinson did engage with political and social issues of her day, he comes to a similar conclusion about her elitist and conservative positions. For example, both Erkkila and Mitchell read “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (F260, J288) against the conventional grain. Mitchell argues:

Rather than expressing sympathy for the disenfranchised, the speaker expresses both anxiety and contempt for the democratic system that gives “bog-trotters” [Irish immigrants] access to political and cultural influence.

Erkkila’s central claim that

Dickinson was the“lady” and the intellectual whose leisure, freedom, and space “to think” were made possible by the manual labor and proletarianization of others

has been differently inflected by a ground-breaking study of Dickinson’s relationship with the Irish servants in her household. Aife Murray points out that domestic arrangements in the Dickinson household were unusual for that class. Emily Norcross insisted on doing most of the domestic tasks, with the help of her daughters, but as they became more socially engaged, they persuaded their father to hire a full-time live-in “maid-of-all-work.” Margaret O’Brien served in this capacity from 1850 until she married and left in 1865. Then there is a three and a half year gap before Margaret Maher is hired in 1869 and remains until well after Dickinson’s death in 1886.


Murray acknowledges that these women were “critical to [Dickinson] defining herself as a poet,” but not merely as nameless, faceless laborers or proletarians. She notes that Dickinson begins creating the fascicles when O’Brien arrives and stops during the period between her departure and Maher’s hiring, when she–Dickinson–took on so much of the household chores that even her letter writing flags. Editor Thomas Johnson comments about this period, “Psychologically she was dormant. The great poetic drive was suddenly at an end,” while Murray counters by saying, “Dickinson was busy”–with housework.

Murray also paints a very different picture of Dickinson’s class consciousness, arguing for her awareness of the significance of these privileges and her recognition of the contributions of the Irish servants in her household to the often occluded “social context of the artwork’s production.” She even argues that Dickinson stored her fascicles in Maher’s trunk and abjured her to burn them after her death. But recognizing their worth, Maher disobeyed and moved them into Dickinson’s dresser where Lavinia “found” them.

These two approaches to Dickinson and class show how “facts” can be differently interpreted and valued. For Erkkila, the fact that Dickinson had six Irish workmen as her pallbearers reinforces her elite class status and conservative politics. For Murray, the same fact was

an unusual choice that appears to have broken class and cultural taboos

and that spoke

to the Irish immigrant and poor community of Amherst, in an unambiguous gesture of honor and recognition.

Christian Haines

"ChristianIn her brilliant book, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006), Sara Ahmed asks us to consider everything that goes into the activity of writing – not only the time and energy of the author, nor merely her influences, talents, skills, and education, but also her material support. Without time and space, without food in the belly and a roof over one’s head, writing becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Sitting down to write is never simple, for in clearing a space to write, one is inserting oneself into a specific position within a material economy. Unless one is a professional writer, writing is a leisure activity—testimony to the margin of freedom allowed by capitalism. Part of the difficulty of reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry in class terms is that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Dickinson suffers from too much leisure, that the formal inventiveness of her poetry betrays a certain elitism. It’s easy to disdain the commodification of social life—“the Auction/Of the Mind of Man”— when one doesn’t have to worry about paying rent.

Part of Ahmed’s point, however, is that writing orients us towards objects in certain ways, that writing has its own efficacy, its own ability to move us in specific directions. It’s undeniable that Dickinson’s class position—her belonging to a bourgeois family of politicians and entrepreneurs—is the material condition of possibility of her poetry. At the same time, I’m not so sure her poetry orients itself towards the social reproduction of capitalism.

I should explain: Social reproduction—the object of a great deal of Marxist Feminist criticism (by Selma James, Silvia Federici, and Maya Gonzalez, among others)—describes the labor that goes into reproducing labor-power. In other words, it describes the housework, the childcare, transportation, and all of the other kinds of activities that maintain a work force. Without a work force, after all, capitalism cannot exist, and part of how capitalism secures its profit margins is by not paying for the maintenance of its work force. Imagine, for instance, if businesses had to pay wages for the housework supporting their workers or, given that the two-income household has become the social norm, imagine if workers received a stipend for their meals, their childcare, and their transportation over and above their wages/salaries. (By the way, these proposals were circulated by the Wages for Housework Campaign [1972], organized by the International Feminist Collective.)

So, when Dickinson’s poetry uses economic language to describe the emotions of a household, or when it frames the value of poetry and love in terms of their irreducibility to financial calculations, what’s at stake is not only class position in the conventional sense (workers versus capitalists; the proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie; etc.). It’s also about everything that goes into reproducing a household, including the emotional labor or care labor so often expected from women. Dickinson’s poetry speaks to the intersection of gender and class, specifically, to the ways in which patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia align with capitalism to burden women with the task of reproducing the workforce (and with a smile).

We might pose a few questions, then: How does Dickinson’s poetry represent capitalism not only as class conflict or as the privilege of the elite but also as the general commodification of the household? How might the formal strategies of her poetry suggest alternatives to the capitalist value-form? How might her poetry cultivate social norms, affects/emotions, and even forms of life that differ from bourgeois possessive individualism?

I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing poems such as “I gave Myself to Him” and “I’m ‘wife’- I’ve finished that,” and one of the consistent refrains in these poems is an anxiety regarding private property. To paraphrase Marx, Dickinson worries about what happens when everything gets reduced to the sense of having. I read this same anxiety in “Reverse cannot befall.” The retreat of value into the bowels of the earth constitutes a utopian demand for a life beyond the capitalist cycle of booms and busts. One might say that the poem becomes a placeholder for, if not a guarantee of, the invaluable. It makes a place for that which remains untouched by the endless reversals of the market.

Interiority—the geological interiority of the poem’s extended metaphor; the psychological or emotional interiority associated with lyric poetry—is therefore a social matter, because it implies a resistance to capitalism’s tendency to reduce everything to a commodity. No doubt, such interiority is a far cry from the poetic activism of, say, a Bertolt Brecht, an Adrienne Rich, or a Claudia Rankine, but it nonetheless suggests that even bourgeois personhood can remind us that keeping society running doesn’t have to mean reproducing a docile population of workers. (By the way, this emphasis on the utopian power of the bourgeois lyric poem is not unlike Theodor Adorno’s argument in “Lyric Poetry and Society” [1957].)

Of course, none of this erases the privilege Dickinson derives from her class position, but in the midst of a household that could not help but reflect and reenact the commercial desires of capitalism, her poetry did not so much serve capitalism as do a disservice to its entrepreneurial schemes. One could perhaps do worse than seeing her poetry as a reminder that not everything has a price.

bio: Christian P. Haines is Assistant Professor of English at Penn State University. He's recently finished a book, A Desire Called America: Biopolitics, Utopia, and the Literary Commons, which will be published by Fordham University Press in 2019. He also co-edited and introduced a special issue of Cultural Critique, "What Comes After the Subject?" (Spring 2017). Essays by him have appeared in journals including Criticism, Genre, Cultural Critique, and boundary 2. He has work forthcoming in Arizona Quarterly and Postmodern Culture and in edited collections including The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics (Routledge) and The Next Generation: Emerging Voices in Utopian Studies (Peter Lang). He serves as a contributing editor for Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities.



Merideth, Robert. “Emily Dickinson and the Acquisitive Society.” The New England Quarterly 37.4 (1964), 435-52, 437.

Smith, Martha Nell. “The Dickinsons & Class.” The Civil War, Class, & The Dickinsons.

Atlantic Monthly, August 15, 1862

Hampshire Gazette, August 5, 1862

Springfield Republican, August 2, 1862


Erkkila, Betsy. “Emily Dickinson and Class.” American Literary History 4.1 (Spring 1992): 1-27, 3, 13, 15, 21, 23.

Mitchell, Domhnall. “Emily Dickinson and Class.” Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002: 191-214, 197-99. See also, Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

Murray, Aife. “Miss Margaret’s Emily Dickinson.” Signs 24, 3 (Spring 1999): 697-732, 729. See also Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language. Hanover: University Press of New Hampshire, 2008.

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