July 2-8, 1862: Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They Will all Have to Die Old Maids”

Springfield Republican, July 5

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

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

Poetry, page 5

General News, page 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlantic Monthly, July 15

Originality, page 63

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That Great Blessedness”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Lisa Furmanski

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

As complication and challenge, see:

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


Atlantic Monthly, July 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 5, 1862.


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

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

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

June 25-July 1, 1862: Mothers

This week, we explore Dickinson’s relationship to mothers–—her mother Emily Norcross Dickinson, mother figures in her life, and with the theme of mothering more broadly in her poetry and in her letters.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Marianne Hirsch

Exploring Dickinson’s literary foremother, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two weeks ago reminds us of the importance of mothers more generally in her life. We recall Virginia Woolf’s famous comment in A Room of One’s Own, “For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” Then, a column in this week’s Springfield Republican for 1862 on “The Influence of Mothers” contextualized motherhood in Dickinson’s historical moment. The nineteenth-century US idealized motherhood as a sacred duty to nurture and spiritually uplift, to be a self-less, shining beacon in a rapidly changing and war-torn world. All of this suggested this week’s focus on Dickinson’s “mothers.”

Emily Norcross Dickinson
Emily Norcross Dickinson

We use the plural to indicate mothering in a broad sense. Dickinson's biological mother, Emily Norcross (1804-1882), was a disappointing figure for most of her daughter’s life. There is evidence in Dickinson’s writings that she felt “motherless.” Most of the poems she wrote containing the word “mother” are about “Mother Nature” or “Mother Eve.”

Elizabeth Holland
Elizabeth Holland

But there is also evidence that she found a mother figure in the woman who was one of her closest friends throughout her adult life, Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland (1823- 1896). In a move to perhaps divert attention from her emotional dependence, Dickinson called Holland “Little Sister,” despite the fact that Holland was seven years her senior. By all accounts, Holland perfectly exemplified the Victorian mother, who excelled in the domestic sphere of nurturing and support. This week, we explore Dickinson’s relationships with her mothers and with the theme of mothering through her poetry and letters.

“The Influence of Mothers”

Springfield Republican, June 28, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“We have again reached a moment of silent and anxious suspense. Gen. McClellan has crowded the rebel lines close up to Richmond, and there can be no further advance without a great battle, unless the enemy abandon the position, which is not probable. Everything is ready on our side, the last parallel is completed, the siege guns are in position, and probably before what we write is printed the country will be startled with news of the most terrific battle yet fought. If our arms are successful, as we confidently expect, the war is substantially at an end; if otherwise the struggle will be still further prolonged, and we may be embarrassed by foreign intervention. Everything depends on success at Richmond.”

The Emancipation Bill, page 2
“The bill to free the slaves of rebels that passed the House on Tuesday provides for the emancipation of the slaves of all persons holding civil or military office in the confederacy after the bill becomes a law, and of all others who shall not return to their loyalty within sixty days after a proclamation to that effect to be issued by the president. The bill also disqualifies all the classes named from ever holding office under the United States government. The president is authorized to negotiate for the acquisition, by treaty or otherwise, of lands or countries in Mexico, Central America or South America, or in the islands in the Gulf of Mexico, or for the right of settlement upon the lands of said countries for all persons liberated under this act, to be removed with their own consent.”

Western Virginia, page 2
“Two bills are before Congress for the admission of Western Virginia as a state into the Union.”

Influence of Mothers, page 6
“Love as we may other women, there stands first and ineffaceable the love of ‘mother;’ gaze as we may on other faces, our mother’s face is still the fairest; bend as we shall to other influence, still overall silent but mighty, reaching to us from long gone years, is a mother’s influence. In scenes of sin and shame and license come that pure, that holy, that ever-loving presence.”

The Power of Music by Augusta B. Garrett, page 6
“It happened one day that the evil ones were all assembled together. They issued from hell to conquer the souls through all the earth. Lucifer left the minstrel to take care of the infernal regions and promised, if he let no souls escape, to treat him on his return with a fat monk, roasted, or a usurer, dressed with hot sauce. But, while the fiends were away, Saint Peter came in disguise, and allured the minstrel to play at dice, who, for lack of money, was so imprudent as to stake the souls which were left under his care. They were all lost and carried off by St. Peter in triumph. The devil returned, found hell empty and the fires out, and very unceremoniously sent the minstrel away; but he was generously received by St. Peter. Lucifer, in his wrath, threatened with severe punishment any fiend who should again bring there a minstrel’s soul; and thus, they ever after escaped the claws of the evil one.”

Poetry, page 7

The Contented Robin poemBooks, Authors and Art, page 7
“A monthly magazine for business men is published in Philadelphia, with the title of the American Exchange and Review. But it must be true that businessmen are slower than their wives and daughters, for side-by-side with the American Exchange for June lie the fashionable monthlies of Godey and Peterson for July. It will be a great convenience to the ladies to receive these numbers in advance of the date.”

Hampshire Gazette, July 1, 1862

The Crops, page 1
“Vegetation of all kinds was never more promising at this season of the year than it now is in this region.”

Influence of Women in Secessia, page 1
“Secession went in among the daughters of the South just as a contagious disease would, or a new style of bonnet. It wasn’t urged into them. They took it. They liked it. It made the amiable angry, the sweet sour, the attractive repulsive, the handsome ugly as sin. It made havoc of all female charms and graces. It muddled the female moral sense and sense of honor. You can’t answer or argue with a woman. There is but one weapon left us in combat with these secesh: their own—insult. General Butler was right in using it.”

page 2
“The rumor of a repulse of our forces before Charleston, first announced from rebel sources, proves too true. Reinforcements will be needed in considerable numbers before the city can be captured.”

William S. Clark (1826-1886) in 1876
William S. Clark (1826-1886) in 1876

Amherst, page 3
Col. W. S. Clark arrived in town Wednesday evening. Notwithstanding the pouring rain, a large number of citizens turned out to welcome him, and he was received at the depot with three times three rousing cheers. His stay will not be long. The rebels are to be whipped and he means to have a hand in it. The ladies of Amherst are busily engaged in procuring articles for the comfort of our wounded soldiers.”

“I Never Had a Mother”

In his first letter, Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked Dickinson about her “companions,” and she replied:

Hills – Sir – and the Sundown – and a Dog – large as myself, that my Father bought me – They are better than Beings – because they know – but do not tell – and the noise in the Pool, at Noon – excels my Piano. I have a Brother and Sister – My Mother does not care for thought –and Father, too busy with his Briefs – to notice what we do – (L 261, April 25, 1862)

The Holyoke Range
The Holyoke Range

Notably, and probably with some posing, Dickinson mentions first the “hills” (the rolling Holyoke range is quite distinctive and beautiful), sunsets, and her dog Carlo. Rather far down the list is her mother, who, Dickinson notes acerbically, does not share her interest in thinking. Dickinson amplified this sense of separation from her mother in a comment she made to Higginson on his first visit to her in 1870, which he reported to his wife in a letter dated 16 August 1870. He was taken aback to hear her say:

I never had a mother. I supposed a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled (L342).

Sharon Leiter notes that in an 1874 letter to Higginson, Dickinson developed this theme of motherlessness:

I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none (L405).

Leiter wonders whether Dickinson was exaggerating or pointing to a “fundamental reality of her emotional life,” and cites, with some qualification, John Cody’s reductive (and heteronormative) psychoanalytic reading that because of her mother’s weakness and distance, “Dickinson failed to make a proper female identification and identified with the males in her life,” preventing her from having a satisfying sex life.

After her mother’s death in 1882, however, Dickinson wrote to her friend and mother-figure Elizabeth Holland, confessing the deep connection that finally developed with the woman who was her mother:

We were never intimate Mother and Children while she was our Mother–but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and when she became our Child, the Affection came (L792, mid-Dec 1882).

In late October 1885 Dickinson wrote to console a friend who had lost her mother by saying,

Who could be motherless who has a Mother’s Grave within confiding reach? Let me enclose the tenderness which is born of bereavement. To have had a Mother – how mighty! (L1022).

Despite all the research on Emily Norcross Dickinson, we know almost nothing about her inner life because she apparently hated writing letters (it became a family joke). She was the eldest of two daughters in a large prosperous family from Monson, twenty miles south of Amherst, and had an unusually good education, attending the Monson Academy and then a year at a noted girls’ boarding school in New Haven, CT. She met Edward Dickinson in 1826, and after a lopsided correspondence (he wrote around seventy letters to her, she responded with around twenty) and much ambivalence on her part about leaving her close-knit family, they married on May 6, 1828.

Emily Norcross had three children over the next five years and ran her household in exemplary (or fanatical, according to Dickinson) fashion without servants for many years. She excelled in cooking, attended social and community events, and was the first in the family to convert in 1831. She was a skillful gardener, a passion she passed on to her daughter. She loved roses in particular, and grew figs, a difficult feat in New England.

Lavinia describes her mother as tender and loving, but others recall her as timorous and fearful, especially when her husband’s business and duties took him away from home. Both she and Dickinson suffered a bout of depression when they moved back to the Homestead in 1855, but Dickinson complained to Elizabeth Holland that her mother’s prostration took precedence (L 182). The domestic and caretaking duties that fell to Dickinson at that time might have contributed to her gradual withdrawal from society. In 1874, a year after her husband’s sudden death, Emily Norcross suffered a stroke and for the last four years of her life needed full time care, which largely fell to Dickinson, who died only four years after her mother. About their relationship, which some have dismissed as unimportant, biographer Richard Sewall concludes:

Emily learned from her what was perhaps more valuable than anything a brilliant mother could have given her: some lessons in simple, devoted humanity, important for a precocious girl not disinclined to the Dickinson snobbery and the satiric Dickinson wit.

The woman Dickinson looked to for maternal emotional support was Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland, wife of Josiah Holland, the literary editor and part owner of the Springfield Republican, and friend of Samuel Bowles. Dickinson met the Hollands in 1853 when they attended one of the famous Commencement week dinners put on by the Dickinsons. The Hollands epitomized the Victorian ideal of marriage; Josiah was large, imposing and intellectual, and Elizabeth was small, doting and warm-hearted.

Dickinson was so pleased with these new friends that she and Lavinia visited the Hollands’ home in Springfield, MA in Fall 1853 and again in Fall 1854. Their welcoming and vibrant household was the antithesis of the strict and dour Dickinson home, and despite Josiah’s anti-feminism, he rejected religious orthodoxy and had a strong commitment to the literary world, both of which Dickinson shared. And he genuinely cared for Dickinson. For example, as we detailed in the post on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, although he critiqued Barrett Browning's work as morally questionable, we know from Higginson’s report of his visit to Amherst that Josiah gave Dickinson a picture of Mrs. Browning’s tomb, obviously honoring his friend's delight in this woman writer and literary role model (L342).

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Marianne Hirsch

“Matrophobia,” Adrienne Rich wrote in the 1970’s, is not fear of mothers, but “fear of becoming one’s mother.” Hers is a diagnosis that describes many women writers over the centuries, even those who are not feminists. Casting their mothers as “angels in the house,” to use Virginia Woolf’s derogatory term, they tend to cast themselves as motherless daughters who can rewrite the scripts of dailiness and of femininity. When Rich later writes about Jane Eyre and about her strength and the strength of her writing voice, she alludes to Jane’s motherlessness – a motherlessness that is full of temptations she must evade, but that nevertheless enables her survival, her development, and, indeed, the new script she forges for herself. But Rich also makes sure to tell us that Jane is not unmothered. She relies on surrogate mothers – her teacher, her friend, her cousins, the moon – to sustain and to protect her.

It is thus not a surprise that Emily Dickinson – the supreme crafter of her very own script—should distance her writing self from her mother, nor that she should describe her mother as someone who does not “care for thought” in the ways she herself does. Thinking women leave their mothers behind; they identify with fathers, or with women outside the family, with those who do not pose the dangers of matrophobia. Dickinson’s companions are nature, dogs, friends. Neither is it a surprise, however, that Dickinson turns to her mother during her illness and after her death. “To have had a mother,” she writes, “how mighty.” The stress is on the finality of the “have had.” The mother is in the past tense.

Yet Dickinson spends years caring for her mother in her illness and dies a short four years after her mother’s death. If she claims her in her death, does she repair the rift she nurtured in her life? Is the moving elegy she writes, “To the bright east she flies,” actually dedicated to Emily Norcross Dickinson, or is it more about a primal maternal loss, one that faces us all – one that leaves us “homeless at home?”

Dickinson’s ambivalent relationship to her mother is familiar for anyone who studies women writers. The mother who is alive poses the threat of matrophobia, but the dead mother, no longer threatening, invites a reconsideration. Virginia Woolf waited nearly three decades before writing To the Lighthouse (1927), the book that enabled her to work through the premature loss of her mother, Julia Stephen. She stated that writing the book did for her “what psychoanalysts do for their patients.” Dickinson’s elegy, and the other poems included here, are less specific and they engage the mother as figure and not as person. They do not ultimately negate the poet’s statement that “I never had a mother.”

bio: Marianne Hirsch is William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Professor in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a former  President of the Modern Language Association of America. She was born in Romania, and educated at Brown University where she received her BA/MA and Ph.D. degrees.

Hirsch’s work combines feminist theory with memory studies, particularly the transmission of memories of violence across generations. Among many other works, she is the author of The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (1989).



Plant, Rebecca Jo. Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. (1929). University of Adelaide, Chapter Four.

Hampshire Gazette, July 1, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  28, 1862


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

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 278-81, 325-38.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 88.


June 4-10, 1862: Third Letter to Higginson

This week we explore Dickinson’s third letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, dated June 7, 1862. This letter is significant for marking the beginning of what Dickinson denominates, for the first time, her “friendship” with Higginson.

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

This week we explore Dickinson’s third letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, dated June 7, 1862.  This letter is most commonly known for what biographer Richard Sewall calls

disavowals that have contributed as much as anything ever said about her to the legend of the shy genius

—most specifically, a seemingly definitive expression of her disinclination for print publication (“foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin”). It also notably ends with Dickinson’s famous, coy request:

But, will you be my Preceptor, Mr Higginson?

But elements in this letter undermine Dickinson’s possible “posing” here as needing a tutor and guide. This letter is significant for marking the beginning of what Dickinson, for the first time, denominates her “friendship” with Higginson. This is a weighty word that implies not tutelage or preceptorship but a relationship of equality. And letters have historically been a special genre for friendship, by which writers send themselves in words to their special recipient.

In fact, Dickinson carefully chose Higginson as a correspondent. As a prominent literary figure, he  was in a position to acknowledge and legitimate her as a poet.  This letter also sets the tone for this friendship, which will last until Dickinson’s death in 1886. It records Dickinson's playful parrying and resistance of Higginson’s criticism of her poetry, which we have to infer from Dickinson’s responses, since all Higginson’s letters to her were either burned after her death or lost.  As several studies of their relationship demonstrate, it’s not  clear who was the student and who was the teacher!

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)

Exploring this letter, which has a poem embedded in it, also gives us the opportunity to consider it as an aesthetic object in its own right, and think about how Dickinson's prose and poetry interact. In the “Foreword” to a collection of essays about Dickinson’s letters, Marietta Messmer argues that her correspondence can “be regarded as her central form of public artistic expression.” Messmer cites pioneering work in this vein by scholars like Agnieszka Salska, who argues that Dickinson's letters

became the territory where she could work out her own style, create her poetic voice, and crystallize the principles of her poetics.

We will read this letter next to other poems written during this period that expand on its central themes of intoxication, illness, publication, and preceptors.

“The Virtues of Cold Water”


Springfield Republican, June 7, 1862, page 1
Review of the Week:  “This has been the most g[illegible] week of the war–a week of victories and successes, which make us forget all previous blunders and disasters. The rebel army in front of Richmond has been beaten in a two days’ battle, Beauregard’s army has fled in fright and confusion from Corinth, the rebels have been driven back up the valley of the Shenandoah, and the ground lost last week more than recovered, and it looks now as if the field fighting is really over.”

“The General Situation,” page 1:  “In connection with the victories won by our arms come reports of growing Union feeling at the South.”

William Gannaway Brownlow (1805-1877)
William Gannaway Brownlow (1805-1877)

“New England Matters,” page 1:  “The lectures of Parson Brownlow have excited great interest at the various points which he has visited; and he had full houses and enthusiastic applause at Hartford and in this city. He paints this wicked rebellion in such strong colors as may suitably be used by one who has felt the halter around his neck and the iron entering his soul for the crime of loving his undivided country.”

Religious Intelligence, page 1:  “Treason brutalizes priest as well as people. … Another reverend secesh, named Ely, distinguished himself by his outrages. After dinner he remarked to a young lady that he was going to Ball’s Bluff after trophies. He wanted some bones of the Yankee soldiers, in order to make finger rings, &c. to carry his presents to some of his female friends in Mississippi.”

Poetry:  “Spring in New England” page 2, in rhyming couplets by J. R. Lowell

Original Poetry, page 6
“The Kiss” and “Love’s Good Night” by H. M. E. and “A Sonnet After F. G. T.” which refers to an apparently execrable sonnet that appeared in this month Atlantic Monthly, and was called out by other commentators as well:

… Poor murdered language, lying still and stark;
Words that have somehow lost the vital spark;
As if the lexicon, in playful antic,
Shook them as from a dice-box,—new and old,
Nouns, adjectives and adverbs, more or less,
Just as it happened; so it is, I guess,
That, like a pebble in a ring of gold,
Lies a dead sonnet in the June Atlantic.    F. H. C.

Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

John B. Gough (1817-1886)
John B. Gough (1817-1886)

Local IntelligenceNorthampton: “Another great success attended the lecture of [John B.] Gough last Tuesday evening. … The old temperance advocates were excited with delight, and even the lovers and users of intoxicating drinks were forced to accept his logic as conclusive and laugh at the exposures of their unmanly conduct. The closing portion of the lecture was an exceedingly beautiful picture of the virtues of cold water.”

There is another long column on page 1 about Gough’s lecture and the virtues of temperance in which the correspondent says,

we wish our poor brothers whom alcohol has almost destroyed could hear Gough.

Also, a short piece, from “some curious letters” that were found in the post office at Norfolk when the Northern troops took possession. Among them was one from John Tyler [tenth president of the United States], dated October 6, 1860, which said, “Eight months ago I gave up the wine cup forever, to devote myself to my country until the end cometh.”

Literary, page 1:  Recommends three books for children and gives the contents for The Westminster Review for April, the London Quarterly for April, Blackwood for May, and the newest Rebellion Record.

Other columns on page 1: “What is a ‘Gentleman,’” “Truth at Home,” “Unruly Milch Cows,” “Kindness to Animals,” “A Plea for the Skunk.”

Amherst, page 2: “The eloquent John B. Gough will address the students by request, on Tuesday afternoon of Commencement week, in the Village Church. His subject will be ‘London.’”

Amherst College, June 9: “We enjoyed a great treat last Saturday afternoon, listening to the heroic Parson Brownlow, from Tennessee. … The Parson’s daughter, the brave woman who defended the “Stars and Stripes” at the peril of her life against the savage hordes of rebeldom, is traveling with her father. She is a noble looking woman, and her outer bearing speaks for the great soul within.

“I am in danger–Sir–”

It is important to put Dickinson’s third letter to Higginson on June 7, 1862 (L265) into the context of her state of mind and their earlier correspondence. In an earlier post, we discussed Dickinson’s first letter to Higginson, a prominent literary figure and public reformer. Written on April 15, after reading his “Letter to a Young Contributor” in that month’s Atlantic Monthly, she asked:

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

She enclosed four poems.

Higginson wrote back quickly, but because his letters to Dickinson were either burned at her death (on her request to Lavinia) or lost, we have only those she sent to him and have to infer what was in his letters from her responses. In her second letter on April 25, Dickinson thanks him for his “surgery,” implying that he critiqued her poems, and answers in oblique and winsome ways some of the questions he put to her about herself, her reading, her family and companions. She enclosed two or three more poems, including the masterful account of renounced passion, “There came a Day at Summer’s Full” (F325A, J322) .

On June 7, 1862, Dickinson responded to the second letter Higginson wrote to her, sometime after the end of April. We should note that instead of addressing him as “Mr. Higginson,” as she did in her second letter, this letter begins “Dear friend.” and ends, “Your friend / E Dickinson,” suggesting quite a leap in intimacy for the reputedly shy Dickinson. It also suggests an aspiration to, or even the assumption of, equality. Jason Hoope, who argues for the importance of this correspondence to Dickinson, notes that she regarded Higginson’s “surgery” on her poems “as heralding literary legitimacy. The inevitable sincerity of evaluation in and of itself—regardless of its content—is ‘justice,’ as the third letter makes clear”:

Your second letter surprised me, and for a moment, swung – I had not supposed it. Your first-gave no dishonor, because the True-are not ashamed – I thanked you for your justice -but could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled my Tramp-Perhaps the Balm, seemed better, because you bled me, first.

Whereas in the first letter, Dickinson asks Higginson to “tell me what is true,” here, as Hoope notes, Dickinson “asserts her own membership among ‘the True.’” This letter also reprises important themes from the two earlier letters, such as poetry as/and illness, her thinking about print publication and fame, and her eagerness for an interlocutor and confidante, a “friend.” We know from her letter of April 25 that Dickinson recently had been ill when she says, I “write today, from my pillow.” (L261). We also know that her close friend, Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican, had been away since Spring on a European tour for his health, and that Dickinson had been missing him keenly. Claiming to have exhausted language’s capacity to describe how moved she was by “The ‘hand you stretch me in the Dark,’” Dickinson embeds a poem into the letter, “As if I asked a common Alms” (F14, J323).

Although Alfred Habegger observes that “the letters to Higginson enacted the poet’s fondness for self-dramatization,” he also suggests that “The isolation she claimed was by no means wholly fictive.” Still, when her brother Austin read the 1891 Atlantic essay in which Higginson excerpted and commented on Dickinson’s letters,

he says Emily definitely posed in those letters. … The fraternal view had its blind spots, like the paternal condescension toward the female mind. These familial male superiorities help explain many things, including the poet’s quest for authoritative “tutors” and “masters” outside her home.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

Two Poems

Southwest Corner

pencil enclosed in letter

The room– spare and bright.
Carlyle, Browning, and Eliot watch from the walls,
A tiny desk for weighty work.

Franklin stove gave private warmth,
Writing into the night, even–
deliciously–till dawn.
Later, pencils, scribbling on
Scraps stashed in pockets,
Envelopes splayed like butterflies
Straying through chores,
Winged +gleanings of song.

But the geranium on the sill?
Flamboyant blossoms coaxed in shivers,
For window musing, stroking sueded leaf,
heady scent of Orient and heat.

Then, shimmering grail of pilgrimage
The white dress
Surprisingly petite, front buttons requiring
No help. Too busy plumbing eternity for fussing.

Through the hush of admiration
–rustle of muslin, and
Glimpsed escaping behind the bedroom door
Pinned auburn hair
Bold, like the chestnut burr
Depthless eyes
Like the sherry in the glass the guest leaves.

+ edifice

webbed burfish


Spellbound I tail it,
coral shard
shifting too deliberately
in the rubbled shallows
I prowl between reef and shore.

First, tiny whirling fins appear,
little brooms propelling
a wedge-shaped body
brindled with three dark blotches
like bruises or spilled ink.
Then a face, square and wide,
with large unlidded eyes
and yellow spikes whiskering
a plated, smirking mouth.

For a sickening moment our gazes
lock–I am hooked and held.

Later, dry and safely landed,
I find staring out from a page
of the identification book:
Chilomycterus antillarum,
the webbed burrfish,
aka spiny boxfish, blowfish, balloonfish, globefish, hedgehog fish,                    swelltoad,
evil twin of the porcupine puffer
who delights us with its
Disney waifishness.

I add it to my life list
but it bewitches
my thoughts, twitching up,
talisman of depths,
never letting me forget
how in its world
I am forced to surrender
the engineering miracle of knees
kicking stiff-legged
tipped with rubber fins.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.




Messmer, Marietta. “Foreword.” Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters: Critical Essays. Eds. Jane Donahue Eberwein and Cindy MacKenzie. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009, vii-x, viii.

Salska, Agnieszka. “Dickinson’s Letters.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Eds. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, 163-80, 168.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 553.

Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  7, 1862


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

Hoope, Jason. “Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862-1886.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 55, 3 (Fall 2013): 348-387, 358.


May 7-13, 1862: Wanderlust

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

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

“Telescoping Places”

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

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

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

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

Kashmir Valley
Kashmir Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Wounded Heart”


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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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

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

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

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

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

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

                   —Mrs. Browning

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

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

“The Heart Wants What it Wants”

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

Samuel Bowles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Joe Waring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Color – Caste – Denomination – 

These – are Time's Affair – 

Death's diviner Classifying 

Does not know they are -

As in sleep – all Hue

forgotten – 

Tenets – put behind – 

Death's large – Democratic


Rub away the Brand -

If Circassian – He is careless – 

If He put away 

Chrysalis of Blonde – or Umber – 

Equal Butterfly -

They emerge from His Obscuring – 

What Death – knows so well – 

Our minuter intuitions – 

Deem unplausible

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 30-May 6, 1862: Gardens

References to gardens, gardening, and the denizens of gardens pervade Dickinson’s work. For some readers, she is pre-eminently a “nature” poet. As spring ripens into summer, we thought we would explore Dickinson’s “garden politics”––that is, the power of gardens literal and rhetorical in her writing.

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

“Garden Politics”

References to gardens, gardening, and the denizens of gardens pervade Dickinson's work. For some readers, she is preeminently a “nature” poet. As spring ripens into summer, we thought we would explore Dickinson's “garden politics”– that is, the power of gardens literal and rhetorical in her writing.

New York Botanical Gardens' recreation of Dickinson's gardens, 2010
               New York Botanical Gardens’ recreation of Dickinson's gardens, 2010

Thinking about Dickinson’s gardens and gardening has undergone something of a revolution since our recognition of the Anthropocene, the present geological age in which humans have had a dominant effect on the earth—and not for the good. This recognition has produced a “post-human” turn in thinking, a reconsideration of human subjectivity, species superiority, and materiality that has consequences for local and global ethics and ideas of scale. Several thinkers find a consciousness of these ideas in Dickinson’s famous garden poetry, and they are changing the way we read it.

The conventional consensus has been that Dickinson’s nature writings are inordinately detailed and informed because of her study of natural history at Mount Holyoke Seminary and her deep experience in nature and with gardening. Critics see gardens as often standing for something else in her work,

microcosms of nature, analogies of heaven, and representations of her soul, home, and New England culture … a setting for musing on the sublime and fallen mortal world and imagining the immoral (Yin).

They also recognize that Dickinson often reversed this metaphor, finding Eden here on earth. In 2004, Judith Farr produced the first substantial study of Dickinson’s gardening, in which she linked the poet’s passion for horticulture to her equally strong passion for poetry: in essence, Farr argued, the garden gave Dickinson her metaphors, language, and symbols.

More recent scholarship asks different questions about the literal gardens in Dickinson’s life, her representation of plants that move and act and feel, her birds that seem to possess a higher intelligence past human capabilities and ask philosophical questions, her cultivation of exotic species in her conservatory, the circulation of such species globally through the horticultural imperialism of the West, even her brother Austin’s habit of “bioprospecting,”—that is, digging up trees from the wild and bringing them back to plant in his yard or meadows.

This week, we post the results of our collaboration with my colleague Melissa Zeiger’s Spring 2018 course at Dartmouth College titled “Garden Politics: Literature, Theory, Practice.” We visited the class to talk about Dickinson’s gardening and garden politics, read some exciting recent critical work, and asked her students to write short essays about garden poems Dickinson wrote around 1862. The results are fascinating.  

“May-day has come”


Springfield Republican, Review of the Week. Progress of the War: “The capture of New Orleans [on Monday, April 28] is the most important of our recent successes. It had been so long and confidently expected that the announcement of the event made no great sensation, yet the dismay it has carried throughout the South, too great to be concealed, and the renewed confidence it has produced in the loyal sections of the country, manifested especially in a remarkable appreciation of government securities, show the estimate placed upon the event in all parts of the country.”

Capture of New Orleans, 1862
Capture of New Orleans, 1862

The General Situation. “Rumors have been in circulation in respect to an armistice and compromise, but they were doubtless weak inventions of the northern allies of treason, who see the fate impending over the heads of their friends, and would gladly avert it. But neither the government nor the people will listen to any propositions until the rebels lay down their arms and make an unconditional submission, and that they are unlikely to do till their armies in Virginia and the Southwest are defeated and destroyed.”

Foreign Affairs. “The question of iron armored ships still continues to be the prominent topic in Europe.”

Local Matters. “May-day has come in the guise of a damp and chilling atmosphere, quite discouraging to out-of-doors recreations.”

The Educational Commission at Port Royal. “Very ungenerous, not to say malignant, attempts have been made to prejudice the people against the efforts made under government supervision to plant the deserted plantations on the South Carolina islands, and the men and women who have gone from New England and New York to direct the labors of the negroes and educate their children have been ridiculed and their efforts pronounced a failure in advance. But so far as we can judge from the most reliable accounts they are doing the difficult work of their mission with great tact and energy and with every prospect of success.”

Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons (1817-1887). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=389373
Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons (1817-1887). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=389373

“The government mail service has been thoroughly revised and improved this season, by placing new routes in operation, increasing the frequency of trips on the old and infusing additional vigor into every part of the system.”

The New Slave Trade Treaty. “The new treaty negotiated by Mr. Seward and Lord Lyons for the prevention of the slave trade, is published. … [it] will be hailed with joy by all true citizens.”

School-Girls, Ideal and Actual. —

An ideal school-girl is one of the very loveliest things on earth. Personally so fair, so fresh, so hopeful, the beauty of womanhood in its dewy promise, “a rose with all its sweetest leaves folded.” … But the real school-girl is sometimes a very different person. She is a rose too early opened, with its petals imperfect yet widely flaunting to catch the reluctant gaze. … She is only bent on amusing herself in her own untrammeled way, a way which lowers her position, depraves her taste, and robs the budding rose, while yet enfolded in protecting moss, of half its fragrance and its dew.

Poetry: “Under the Snow” by the Late Gen F. W. Lander (1821-1862) from The Atlantic for May.

Frederick W. Lander (1821-1862)
Frederick W. Lander (1821-1862)

It is an account, in four-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter rhyming abab, of a “fallen woman” driven out into the winter, pregnant and alone, back to the place of “her spring time vows” and, presumably, her fall, described as

where one ghastly birch
Held up the rafters of the roof,
And grim old pine trees formed a church.

Compare this to Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” (F236B, J324), a poem about the garden  as a very different kind of church.

“Life’s Question” by the Dean of Canterbury

Books, Authors and Art. Reports publication of a collection of writing by Thomas de Quincey and previews the contents of May’s Atlantic Monthly:

The only bit of romance in the number is in the first part of a story by Miss Prescott, showing a good degree of her peculiar power, somewhat chastened and pruned of its early redundancies of expression. … it is not lavishly sensuous in its descriptions, and has many touches of simple, genuine nature. It awakens an interest which may not be fully sustained in the concluding chapter, as this writer, with all her vividness of imagination and pictorial power, does not usually excel in conclusions.

Hampshire Gazette May 6: Begins with “Lines, for Mrs. W. addressed to her husband, on their “Silver Wedding,” April 25, 1862 by E. T. Hayward

From the Beaufort Cor. Phila. Inquirer: Secession in its Effects upon Women.

The secession females (I will not call them ladies) … here, as elsewhere, endeavor to take advantage of their sex, and the disinclination of the officers to use harsh measures with them, to show their malignity and to do us all the injury in their power.

Notice about selection of officers of the Horticultural Club (of Springfield, MA): all males in the subcategories of agriculture and horticulture except for three females “on Floriculture.”


Col. W. S. Clark has sent home to the College six muskets taken from the enemy at Newbern. In examining them, Mr. Oliver Hunt, the Janitor, found one loaded with six charges of Minnie balls, and burst the barrel in getting them out. Probably it is in this way that the rebels count one Southerner equal to five Yankees.

Amherst is now quite independent of the rest of the world on the score of news, for she boasts a daily newspaper—even the Amherst Daily Express. This little issue comes forth at the early hours of 6 o’clock, A. M. , containing “all the latest news from the seat of war by [illegible] telegraph.”

“Earth as Heaven”

Dickinson once remarked to her Norcross cousins,

I was reared in the garden you know,

and the frequency and accuracy of garden imagery in her poetry substantiates this boast. Dickinson’s mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, is generally credited with her children’s love of gardening. She was renowned around Amherst for her skill in producing the most delicious fruits, especially figs. Dickinson started gardening at age eleven at least, and never stopped.

A page from Dickinson's Herbarium. Houghton Library, Harvard University
A page from Dickinson's Herbarium. Houghton Library, Harvard University

As a child, Dickinson painstakingly filled an herbarium book with over 400 specimens of plants, which she labeled in Latin. We know from her letters to friends that she collected and traded specimens. In 1845, for example, she wrote to her friend Abiah Root,

I am going to send you a little geranium leaf in this letter, which you must press for me. Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you … If you do, perhaps I can make some addition to it from flowers growing around here (L6).

Creating herbariums was a common occupation among young girls at the time, in part because the natural sciences were considered an acceptable feminine occupation which girls were encouraged to practice. Books were specially published with labeled spaces for pressed plants. Dickinson and her female peers studied natural science extensively at Mount Holyoke and Amherst Academy.

Dickinson's original conservatory, Dickinson Museum
Dickinson's original conservatory, Dickinson Museum

Judith Farr, who has made a deep study of Dickinson’s gardens, points out that in 1855, Edward Dickinson built his daughter a glassed-in conservatory off the dining room, so that she could garden year round and also keep exotic species of flowers like jasmine. Farr suspects that Edward gave this particular gift not only to please his daughter but

because growing flowers was, to him, a more suitable occupation for a woman than writing verse. 

Wily Dickinson made the two occupations interdependent, and often sent gifts of pressed flowers in her letters or tucked poems into bouquets from her garden and conservatory.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Ivy Schweitzer

Two garden poems:

“Caging the Tulips”

Every spring their pale tips
poke through soil
in my neighbor’s plot,
a tiny platoon of beauty.

I imagine the autumn muster:
plump bulbs with  papery skins,
bottoms fringed with roots,
roll from perforated
sacks to be nestled
in close rank and file,
precisely eight inches beneath the loam.

In May, showers roust them out,
green recruits of incipient joy;
sun gives the drill command,
and we brace for the cadence of color—
when the cage goes up around them.

Four feet of chicken wire
open at the top but tall enough
to deter winter thin deer.

They come, then, smoldering
orange petals with blazing yellow
throats, pitch black at the center,
erect three lobed stigma
ringed by six slender stamen,
their anthers dusty with pollen and curved daintily outward,
splayed cups of exultation
penned in for their own protection.

I lope past after my morning run,
suddenly remembering how you reached for me
last night, unexpectedly,
how we panted in the dark air suffused by scents
from my rowdy spring beds
laced with manure.

Oh glorious disorder, I croon to the captives,
let us throw reason to the winds,
let us plant tulips for the spring
and let ravenous deer
eat the sweet tips,
or not.

My greenhouse
My greenhouse

“Bringing down the Basil”

Outdid yourself this summer—
thigh high and
lording it over the bush beans
rivaling the Sun Gold tomatoes,
rampant and clustered like grapes,
their simmering flesh panting
     for your heady infusion.

Subjected to weekly sheering and pinching
of blossoms, you grew potent by thwarting,
turning the heads of passersby
who paused, asking for my secret—
what is there to say?

manure and ruthlessness.

Broken on the blades of my blender,
your majesty challenged with
lobes of garlic, pignoli and reggiano,
pesto is a balm for the
     bruised soul.

Now cool September nights nip your leaves.
My pruners neatly sever your woody stems,
releasing a scent
     like a sigh
like the spirit escaping the lips of prey
     at the moment of passing—

Something ancient in reaping
what we have sown and fostered,
until in the fullness of touch
     and time
we break its body
     for succor.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.



“Emily Dickinson and Gardening.” The Emily Dickinson Museum.

Farr, Judith with Louise Carter. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, 4-5.

Yin, Joanna. “Garden, as Subject.” The Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 122-23.

This week in History

Hampshire Gazette, May 5, 1862.
Springfield Republican,  Sat May 3, 1862.

This week in Biography

Letter 233. Letters from Dickinson to Unknown Recipients, DEA.


April 23-29, 1862: Second Letter to Higginson

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

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

“Thank you for your surgery”

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

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

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

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

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

“I am in Danger Sir”

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

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

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

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

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

    – Adrienne Rich, from  Necessities of Life (1966)

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

“This hectic grandiloquence so fashionable among the codfish aristocracy”


Springfield Republican, April 26

The Pear and Grape Mania, p. 1:

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

New Bradford Pear Tree
New Bradford Pear Tree

Emancipation and Colonization, p. 2:

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

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

The Abuse of Words

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

Books, Authors and Art, p. 7:

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

The Unparalleled Flood of 1862, p.8

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

Hampshire Gazette, April 29 1862

New Orleans Captured, p. 2

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

Fredericksburg Fully Occupied

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

“The Most Experienced and Worldly Coquette”

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

the impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius

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

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

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

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

and that Higginson’s criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dickinson goes on to relay that she

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

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia Daily News

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

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

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

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

Read this week’s poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Joseph Waring

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Halberstam
Jack Halberstam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” The Atlantic, October 1891. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1891/10/emily-dickinsons-letters/306524/

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


Hampshire Gazette, April 29 1862

Springfield Republican, April 26 1862


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

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

Hoppe, Jason. “Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862-1886.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 55 no. 3, 2013, pp. 348-387, 352-58. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/517590.

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

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


April 9-15, 1862: Edward Dickinson

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

Edward Dickinson

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

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

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

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

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

“No more kid-glove policy”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Brother and Sister thank you for remembering them.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Hannah Matheson

Hannah Matheso photo

Two Poems


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


Atlantic Monthly, April 15, 1862.

Hampshire Gazette, April 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, April 12, 1862.


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

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

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


April 2-8, 1862: Publication

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

 “Firmament to Fin”

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf


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

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

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

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

A fascicle
A fascicle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Things that are Not Things”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dickinson & Higginson: A Preface

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

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

In Dickinson’s voice

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

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

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

     +crooning     +bursting

In a contemporary voice

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

History and Biography

Emily Dickinson Archive http://www.edickinson.org

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

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

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

March 19-25, 1862: Spring!

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

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

“The Mystic Day”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your general loves you”


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

George B. McClellan. 1861 photograph by Mathew Brady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Levy Yulee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Early Soldier-heart”

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

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

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

March 22: Dickinson writes to Louise and Frances Norcross:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder – wear!

(F384A, J426)

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Sharon Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon Barnes

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


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



March 12-18, 1862: Death of Frazar Stearns

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

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

“A Christian Martyr”

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

Frazar Stearns. Amherst College Collections

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

Reverend William Stearns.

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

William Smith Clark.

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

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

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

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

“The meeting of ‘Marine Monsters’”


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


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

Battle of Hampton Roads

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

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

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

“Let us love better”

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

Frazar Stearns. Image: Amherst College

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

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

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

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

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

Lieutenant Colonel Clark wrote of the battle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They conquered ­ – but Bozzaris fell.

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Samantha Bryant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 104-115.
  • Stearns, William.  Adjutant Stearns. Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1862. Ebook, 100 ff.
  • Longsworth, Polly. “Brave Among the Bravest,” Passages of Time: Narratives in the History of Amherst College, ed. Douglas C. Wilson. Amherst: Amherst College Press. 2007.
  • Sweet, William. A Cannon for the Confederacy: The Legacy of Frazar Stearns
  • https://www.amherst.edu/news/news_releases/2012/03/node/384752
  • Werner, Marta, ed. A Nosegay to Take to Battle’: The Civil War Wounding of Emily Dickinson.

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