February 26 – March 4, 1862: Sue

One of the persons we KNOW Dickinson chose for her selective society was Susan Huntington Dickinson, Dickinson’s sister-in-law, life-long correspondent and object of her deepest affections. Though we are not sure of the details of their relationship, we explore its deep impact on her life through the “Sue Cycle” of poems of 1862.

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

“The Sue Cycle”

Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Am 1118.99b, Series I, (29.4)
Susan Dickinson, n.d.

One of the persons we KNOW Dickinson chose for her selective society was Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, a girlhood friend of Dickinson, and eventually her sister-in-law.  We dedicate this week to exploring her significance in Dickinson’s personal and poetic lives. It is not clear whether Sue, as Dickinson usually refers to her, chose Dickinson back, or reciprocated as the full confidante, soul sister, even lover that Dickinson wanted. But their importance to each other is indisputable.

Sue was born nine days after Dickinson on December 19, 1830 and died twenty-seven years almost to the day of Dickinson's death on May 12, 1913. From a struggling family and with dreams of betterment, Sue loved books, reading, art and poetry. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her aunt and came to live in Amherst in 1850, where she met Dickinson and, for the next decade, their intimacy flourished.

Abiah Root
Yale University Archives

Dickinson’s early letters to Sue are nothing short of delirious. In one of the most thorough considerations of their association, Judith Farr speculates that Sue took the place of Dickinson’s girlhood friend and crush, Abiah Root, when Abiah married and stopped responding to Dickinson’s eroticized importunings.

Then, on July 1, 1856, Sue married Austin, Dickinson’s brother, a match Dickinson encouraged, thinking it would bind Sue more firmly into the family, especially when their father built the couple an Italianate villa dubbed “The Evergreens” next door to The Homestead. Dickinson’s upstairs window faced both the road and The Evergreens where she could watch Sue’s comings and goings.

The Evergreens

Sue was a fit interlocutor for Dickinson and there is evidence that they shared profound interests in reading, writing, gardening, recipes, and even acted as editors for each other’s poetry, as in the case of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” detailed below. But Sue was mercurial, worldly and socially ambitious, and soon became busy with the birth of her first child. Scholars differ on just what happened, but in the Fall of 1861, as Farr narrates it, Sue sent a letter to Dickinson, folded up tight and marked “private,” apologizing for her silence, commiserating with Dickinson’s suffering (the “terror” Dickinson tells Higginson she experienced “since September”) and disclosing her own

sorrow that I never uncover. If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we?

she asks. This note captures the literary quality of their relationship.

In a message Dickinson sent across the lawn to The Evergreens later in 1862, Dickinson included the poem, “Your Riches – taught me – Poverty” (F418, J299), with the words,

Dear Sue– You see I remember–Emily.

It’s as if their deep love and profound importance to each other exist now in memory, but they provided Dickinson with her great themes of loss and suffering. We will discuss this poem and others from the “Sue Cycle” of poems Farr identifies in the poems section in order to plumb the vast and sometimes underplayed importance of Sue in Dickinson’s artistic life.

“We need humility”

Springfield Republica


Britain continues to deliberate, but so far refuses to recognize the Confederacy, or aid their cause in any way, which eases the Union’s nerves on the matter.

The war for subjugation in Mexico continues, and the Union Senate finally decides to reinvigorate the Monroe Doctrine and ally itself with Mexico against Britain, France, and Spain. Previously, there were worries that getting involved in the conflict would take away resources from the Civil War and a free Mexico would enable the South to pull them into the war, but with the South’s “suppression now well and assured,” these worries disappear.


Review of the Week: Progress of the War. The Union continues to report back on sweeping victories that keep the Confederacy’s armies retreating, “crushed,” and destitute in morale. Tennessee is under General Ulysses S. Grant’s martial law and Missouri is now “swept clean,” and reports say the Union has occupied Fort Donelson and Nashville, which cuts off vital road systems that connect the Confederacy. General Price’s army is “used up,” and the civilians in the South “accept their fate” and submit to the Union’s government rule.

An index of the importance of this victory, and its costs, is Herman Melville’s long poem, “Donelson,” published in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). The detailed account of the successful Union siege of the Confederate Fort concludes on a less celebratory note with “wife and maid” reading “the death-list” while the narrator intones:

Ah God! may Time with happy haste
Bring wail and triumph to a waste,
And war be done;
The battle flag-staff fall athwart
The curs'd ravine, and wither; naught
Be left of trench or gun;
The bastion, let it ebb away,
Washed with the river bed; and Day
In vain seek Donelson.

Jefferson Davis
(Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Jeff Davis was inaugurated as the president of the Confederacy for six years last Saturday, and during the ceremony it was reported that he received updates on Nashville.

“Washington’s Day” was “never before as universally and enthusiastically celebrated” as it was this week in the Union. It symbolized the strength of the Union and the country as a whole, and boosted morale even higher than the previous string of victories.

A Violent, Wintry Storm. A series of peculiar storms hit Massachusetts, including hurricanes and snow storms within the course of “three to four days.” This may be the “fatal weather” Dickinson refers to in a letter (L 254) to her cousin, Frances Norcross, written at this time.

Life in Washington. As Seen Through New Spectacles. This week’s “Life in Washington” is a walk through the “grand” streets of the National Mall. The author tells us of the history of the layout, designed by Christopher Wren, and compares it to other famous cities: New York, London, and Paris in terms of style and space. The reader explores Pennsylvania Avenue and its history as they walk with the author down the visual space, and the White House is the last stop.

Willie Lincoln, c. 1855

We learn the history and architectural inspiration for the White House, both inside and out, but then the author inevitably strays to the recent death of eleven-year-old William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln (February 20, 1862) and the impact it had on the family and the country. The author (perhaps a woman, as the other “Life in Washington” installments suggest) muses on Mary Todd Lincoln’s distress about her son, and the criticism she received because of such devastation. The author ridicules all the gossip about Mary Lincoln that unfairly criticizes her, as it

sharpens the scalpel which cuts through every fibre of her mental, moral, and physical frame. If she were an angel fresh from the sky she could not satisfy the requirements of narrow ignorance and petty malice.

The author reiterates that “we need humility” in this time, kindness for others and for the grieving Lincoln family, as they experience distress. This column may be a response to last week’s “A Visitor in Washington,” which expressed vehement dislike for women as irrational and fomenting evil, especially those Southern women who are the supposed root of the “wild and wicked rebellion”—the author recounts a story of a man who ascribes every problem encountered to an anonymous woman and asks, “who is she?

When a Wife Should be at Home. This little column is a companion piece to last week’s “When a Husband Should be Absent from Home” (on washing and cleaning days, when the child cries and when your wife’s female friends come to visit) and lists some traditional duties of “mistresses of the household” at the time:

The wife may go out for light and air, and also for her little round of social duties, of friendship or beneficence. She may go out for merchandise and marketing, as the mother-bird explores every nook for the snug upholstery that lines her nest, and the dainty morsels for which the birdlings flutter and call. She may go out, too, as the robin does, for food for herself; that she may return with a clearer mind and a larger heart, a fresher cheek and a more elastic step; yea, in some instances, where such an improvement is possible, with a more equable temper than before. For these purposes the prayer meeting, the lecture, the concert, the soiree and sewing-circle are not to be despised. But all these wanderings should be subordinate and occasional, the exception and not the rule.

The bird metaphors are particularly relevant. Here they are little creatures, delicate and homely. In her early poetry about Sue, Dickinson used bird metaphors as well, but these birds were singers and built nests and carry very different connotations: of strength and wonder, instinct and great importance, vital to nature and life, sometimes divine.

“Sue Forever More”

This week, Dickinson received a very excited letter from Susan Dickinson, discussing the appearance of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” in the Springfield Daily Republican on March 1, 1862. Entitled “The Sleeping,” the poem was heavily edited and regularized and published anonymously (see below for an image of the original printing):

The Sleeping.

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning,
And untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze
In her castle above them,
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear,
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadences:
Ah! What sagacity perished here!

This poem is key in illustrating the profound personal and poetic connection between Dickinson and Sue. The myth goes that Dickinson wrote in solitary exile in her upstairs bedroom. And for many years, family members and editors have ignored or downplayed her intense connection to Susan Dickinson. But Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart argue in their edition, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington, that the material evidence shows that Dickinson and Sue, living next door to each other, sent poems and other writings back and forth for commentary and critique.

“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” is the prime example. In 1859, Dickinson sent a draft that was close to the printed version quoted above to Susan, who thought the second stanza inadequate. Dickinson then sent her a new version with a new second stanza,

Grand go the Years – in the
Crescent – above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop – and Doges -
surrender –
Soundless as dots – on a
Disc of snow -

But Susan again disliked it, writing in reply in one of the rare surviving correspondences between the two women,

I am not suited dear Emily with the second verse … it just occurs to me that the first verse is complete in itself it needs no other, and can’t be coupled –.

One last (known) time, Dickinson wrote an alternate second stanza and sent it to Susan, asking, “Is this frostier?” Susan chose to submit the first version to Bowles for printing in the Republican, but when Dickinson wrote to Higginson in April 1862, she included the poem with the second stanza beginning “Grand go the years.”

In the same letter in which Dickinson sent the “frostier” final stanza, she praises Susan’s eye for poetry and criticism, saying “I know it knows,” and that

Could I make you and Austin – proud – sometime – a great way off – ‘twould give me taller feet -,

a line that Susan would remember well into the 1880s when she wrote it down while working on compiling a book of Dickinson’s writings. Her daughter would finish that work and publish it in 1914 as The Single Hound, which Kate Anthon, another long-time friend of the two women, called

a volume as a memorial to the love of these “Dear, dead Women.”

The material evidence Hart and Smith offer are the more than 500 poems, letters and other writijgs Dickinson sent to Susan over their forty-year correspondence, way more than she sent to her next most important correspondent, Thomas Higginson. Furthermore, especially in the early years, the poems were mostly in pencil and on scraps of plain paper, unlike the ink and gilt-edged stationary Dickinson used for copying out poems in the fascicles or sending poems in letters. The drafts of “Safe in their Alabaster chambers” she sent to Susan were clearly working drafts and Dickinson invited feedback, which Susan happily and somewhat haughtily provided. But after this experience, we have no evidence of Dickinson soliciting feedback from Sue, and in April 1862, she looked for a new “preceptor” in Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Samuel Bowles

Susan was a good mirror for Dickinson: passionate, worldly, intellectually gifted, an insatiable reader and a devotee of poetry. She also wrote a few critical essays and reviews herself, some of which she sent as Letters to the Editor, and she frequently wrote to Samuel Bowles, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and William Hayes Ward — all influential editors of their day. She submitted some of Dickinson’s poems to be printed in different newspapers as well, and published four short stories and at least two of her own poems. She championed women writers throughout her life, as evidenced by a lengthy review of the early work of Harriet Prescott Spofford she sent to the Editor of the Republican in 1903.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Sue's obituary for Dickinson, which appeared in the Springfield Republican on May 18, 1886, and which Higginson thought good enough to serve as the introduction to the 1890 volume of Poems (but Mabel Todd rejected), is considered the first important critical evaluation of Dickinson’s work.

Below “The Sleeping” was printed one such poem that is most likely Susan’s, entitled “The Shadow of Thy Wing”:

Sue most likely sent her drafts to Dickinson for editing as well, but most of the women’s correspondence is lost. What remains, however, reveals much about their relationship.

Dickinson and Susan were particularly close for almost their entire lives, displaying what modern readers would label as an intense, passionate romance. Their letters are frequently erotic, and Dickinson romanticizes Susan, calling her Darling, Dear Sue, Sweet Sue, and Dollie in the most passionate of cases. During the nineteenth century, such intensely affectionate relationships between same-gender friends were commonplace. See, for instance, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s classic essay on the subject, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” (1975).

Close friendships used romantic imagery of flowers and longing, physical intimacy of kisses and hugs, and loving affectionate names like “dearest,” “darling,” “my angel,” “sweet,” “lover,” etc. For Dickinson scholars Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart, however, Dickinson and Susan’s letters and relationship indicate a love that

surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the “intimate exchange” between women friends of the period.

Some scholars see them as lesbians; others see Dickinson as queer.

Dickinson likens Susan to Eden, Cleopatra, imagination, calls her the “Only Woman in the World,” and describes her love for Susan as an “endless fire.” Hart and Smith point out that Austin was clearly jealous of Susan and Dickinson’s relationship after they were married, and Susan even accused him of “interfering” with their letters, to which he responded quite defensively:

As to your deprivation of “Spiritual converse” with my sister – I Know Nothing …  So you will not suspect me of having interfered with your epistolary intercourse with her.

(Note: “intercourse” did not carry a sexual connotation at the time). Dickinson also equates herself to Austin in relationship to Susan, in the famous letter in which she says:  “I guess we both love Susie just as well as we can” that casts them both as her suitors. See also the poem, “The Malay took the Pearl” (F451A, J452),” which scholars have read as a love triangle composed of Austin–Sue–Emily.

Another fascinating element in this story is that the material remains of Dickinson and Susan’s relationship suffer from heavy mutilation, making it hard to discern what they meant to each other. Someone, most likely Austin or his lover of twelve years, Mabel Loomis Todd, whom Susan at first befriended but eventually snubbed and completely rejected, painstakingly erased, masked, or changed references to Susan in most quasi-romantic contexts. For example, in printing, “Her breast is fit for pearls” (F121A, J84), Todd replaced Susan with Mary Bowles as the recipient. The opening salutation, “To Sue,” of “The face I carry with me -” (F 395A, J336) was erased, and in the suitor letter to Austin, “I guess we both love Susie,” the “S” and “ie” are erased to produce a familial love of “us.” By contrast, Sue is allowed to appear in other letters not romantically inclined.

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

The most striking mutilation of a poem occurs in the “B” version of “One sister have I in our house” (F 5A, B, J14). A great deal of angry energy has been expended to erase the importance of Sue to Dickinson, and as a counter to that, we have chosen our cluster of poems from those poems scholars speculate were written to and about the incomparable Sue.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Victoria Corwin

The relationship between Emily and Sue always fascinated me. I am usually the token queer theorist in the room when anything comes up in one of my many College English classes, so I had a lot to say on the subject whenever a “Sue poem” (as we’ve taken to calling them) came up in our studies. But, because we were aware of the prevalence of such close same-gendered relationships, thanks to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s essay and the “cult of true womanhood,” I felt a bit skeptical of applying queer theory to the time period.

Then, I came across “One Sister have I in the house -”

Reading Martha Nell Smith’s introduction to the DEA’s site about mutilation in the Dickinson corpus, my whole world changed. I had only ever worked with the manuscript when looking for frequent Dickinson word alternations or connotations of different kinds of stationery, but never considered cuts, erasures, inks, much less destructions of any kind. I couldn’t imagine they existed; that, of course, no one would intentionally ruin a real life Dickinson manuscript, how silly.

But the image of “One Sister” sewn into Fascicle 2 (copy F5B) looks like this:






Utterly defaced.

Fascicle 2 is the heaviest mutilated fascicle out of the 40 we have, with six poems missing, all by the hand of the mutilator(s) that meticulously and very intentionally deleted “One Sister” from the fascicle and tried to delete it from Dickinson’s work completely. The mutilator (jealous Austin, inferior sister Vinnie, or Sue’s mortal enemy Mabel?) struck through the poem in ink, cut it out of the fascicle, and ripped it again and again in multiple places so that an editor could not fit the pieces back together again, ever. We have the full poem only because Emily sent a copy to Sue, which she guarded down to her last breath.

How is this not queer?

The heaviest deletion violently cancels line 27, “Sue – forevermore!” which indicates that this line held the most weight for the mutilator. Sue is the most important element to delete, whether due to Austin’s failing marriage, Vinnie’s jealousy, Mabel’s hatred, or a general dislike for Sue post-1880s that sprang from Mabel and Austin’s public affair. The exact motivation, however, is irrelevant, because every one of the possible motivations ultimately stems from the same basic queer issue: Emily’s love for Sue.

Since having such a revelation, I’ve been primarily concerned with mutilations and how they unintentionally reveal the deeper politics of Dickinson’s relationships with others. I’m fully convinced that Smith and Hart are right when they say “One Sister” indicates a love that

surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the “intimate exchange” between women friends of the period,

but I’m not entirely sure what that means yet—whether and which queerplatonic, romantic, or sexual labels apply to either of them.

All I know is that I will never not look at a manuscript ever again, and always check poems or letters for damage. Signs of tampering carry a deeper meaning than words alone ever could, and I have a feeling the heavily deleted line “Sue – forevermore!” will haunt Dickinson studies (and me) for a very long time.

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



  • Springfield Republican, volume 89, no. 9, Saturday, March 1, 1862.



February 12-18, 1862: Entitle

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

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

The Power of Naming

What does it take for a person to be named a person? What did it take for a woman in rural New England in the second half of the nineteenth century to be named and name herself a person worthy of regard and respect? Much less a poet?

It is, perhaps, telling that in her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson did not sign her name but included it on a separate card in its own envelop. Under the religious and gender conventions of Dickinson’s day, women became worthy if they made a declaration of faith in God, married a man (which involved taking his name), had and raised children, bore up humbly under burdens and sacrifices, and had a “good” (that is, willing) death.

Dickinson sneered at this narrow definition of womanhood, dismissing it as “dimity convictions” (dimity was a sheer cotton fabric used to make curtains) in a poem Franklin dates to 1863:

What Soft – Cherubic Creatures -
These Gentlewomen are -
One would as soon assault
 a Plush -
Or violate a Star -

Such Dimity Convictions -
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature -
Of Deity – Ashamed -

It's such a common – Glory -
A Fisherman's – Degree -
Redemption – Brittle Lady -
Be so – ashamed of Thee – (F675A, J401)

For Dickinson, personhood was bound up with womanhood, sainthood and poethood, and involved a different kind of “degree.” In the poem above, she calls it “A Fisherman’s – Degree,” a qualification linked to the messy “freckled” realities of the laboring class and also to a proselytizing Jesus who would make his disciples “fishers of men.” In many poems from 1862, Dickinson’s speakers refer to degrees of royalty, self-sovereignty and spiritual entitlement, as well as self-naming and self-possession.

Dickinson’s Webster’s Dictionary defined “title” as a “right” in many spheres, such as law, society, and literature. Titles as “an appellation of dignity, distinction or pre-eminence” run counter to an American democratic spirit. Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson all fiercely rejected European distinctions of rank, social hierarchy, and inherited position, though Dickinson’s father and her brother Austin after him were both known informally as the “Squire” of Amherst. Titles, entitlement, and power for Dickinson are entangled with complex and sometimes ambivalent feelings.

In the literary sphere, titles denote the names of works and authors; it is telling that Dickinson rarely if ever gave titles to her poems. In Dickinson’s Webster’s, both "title" and "entitle" define literary distinction through the daunting representative of the patriarchal poetic tradition, John Milton. The second definition of “entitle” as “to superscribe or prefix” continues:

Hence as titles are evidences of claim or property, to give a claim to; to give a right to demand or receive. The labor of the servant entitles him to his wages. Milton is entitled to fame. Our best services do not entitle us to heaven.

The fifth definition of “title” is “A name; an appellation,” and offers an example from Milton that makes the opposite claim of distinction in reference to women:

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

This is Eve speaking, hesitant to accept the title of “Mother of all Mankind,” because she fears she has ensnared Adam in the temptation and fall (Paradise Lost Bk 11, 163-64.) Even if Dickinson did not consult her Webster’s for these definitions, she knew Paradise Lost and would have been well aware, through religious teachings, of the original opprobrium attached through Eve to women.

For the theme of entitle, we take our cue from a group of letters Dickinson wrote to her friend Samuel Bowles, who was absent on a health-restoring trip to Europe. In one of these letters (L 250) she encloses the touchstone poem “Title divine – is mine!” (F194A and B, J 1072) with this comment:

Here's – what I had to ‘tell you’ –.

We will discuss this poem, and its variants, in more detail in the selection of poems. It contains a cluster of images that recur in poems during this period, exploring issues of and attitudes towards entitlement and power.

“True womanhood” = “good Union woman”


The Springfield Republican happily reports that England and France will not intervene in the war, once the news of the latest victories reach them. If they do come to the aid of the Confederacy, the columnist says, they are not true allies of the United States.

Another column ponders using war loans to pay for the Civil War. It cites England’s four billion-dollar debt, taken on years ago to wage war against France, to justify using foreign money to pay for a war that would essentially put the United States back together.


Springfield Republican, February 15, 1862:
Review of the Week. This week’s review takes up nearly three columns and discusses the “Progress of the War,” chronicling the preparations, battles, and other small happenings related to the Civil War from all over the country.

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

Among the highlights are reports of General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Fort Henry on February 6, the arrest of Union General Stone (and other civilians) on the grounds of treason and collusion with the enemy, and the sense of hopelessness among the rebel forces, covered constantly in the North’s newspapers.

Charles P. Stone (1824-1887)

Grant’s capture of Fort Henry will soon be followed up by reports on the pivotal capture of Fort Donelson on February 16. These last two successes of his campaign in Kentucky and Tennessee definitively captured both states for the Union, and also earned Grant the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.”

Fresh Gossip of Books, Authors, Art, and Artists: An anonymous columnist relates the latest in titles ready to be released—as soon as the War dies down. The author says some famous authors are set to release both heavily-anticipated sequels and new books, and even reveals some plot points and details about a few of them.

Augusta Jane Evans, the controversial Southern writer, is one such author.

Augusta Jane Evans Wilson (1835-1909)

Her novel Beulah became popular during the Civil War, and this article hints at the release of her next book, Macaria, but also questions Evans’ character. The article aligns “true womanhood” with being a “good Union woman,” but also concedes that as long as Evans stands behind her beliefs and

draws a line between her northern friends and the wicked “invaders,”

she remains a respectable woman and writer.

On Emancipation. Various columns this week focus on “The Emancipation Question” from different viewpoints. “Emancipation and its Effects” is the last of these articles written by a “gentleman from the eastern part of Massachusetts” who will publish all his columns in pamphlet form. It summarizes the abolitionist argument, stating that the North has much more to gain than lose by emancipating all slaves in the Confederacy, and that–contrary to popular belief of the time—freed people of color are harmless, capable, and ready to take on freedom.

“A Promiscuous Rampage” by a few anonymous writers attacks the government for being too forgiving to the Confederate states and border states, and for not aiming to completely subjugate the South and abolish slavery in every part of the country before declaring a restored Union—if there could ever be one.

“Taking Care of the ‘Contraband’” gives some updates on how the North aims to help freed slaves who come from the South. Some states have constructed living spaces with schools and churches; instructions on how to donate clothing are at the end of the column.

A strange three sentence long column appears on the corner of page 2, describing what Ralph Waldo Emerson thinks of the war. With no author or title, we cannot be sure who wrote it.

Atlantic Monthly, February 15, 1862:
Battle Hymn of the Republic.Julia Ward Howe’s famous poem-song makes its debut in this month’s Atlantic. The piece raised morale and became wildly popular in the North, and remains an important influence on poetry, song, and pop culture to this day. Originally taken as a patriotic song for the North, it now acts as a general cry of loyalty, whether in the United States or abroad. The “hymn” uses long lines, each stanza containing three 15-syllable lines in iambic rhythm followed by a 6-syllable refrain in a trochaic rhythm, and a very regular rhyme scheme: aaab, cccb, dddb, eeeb. These elements give the impression of a marching army, straight lines and perfect timing.

A poem titled “Snow” paints a vivid picture of a wintry nature scene, specifically focusing on how snow changes the landscape. Likewise, the poem “Midwinter” watches the silent invasion of a snowfall. This poem’s stanzas vary in length and in meter, but all lines are almost consistently octosyllabic, and are in couplet pairs. The subtly varying feet disrupt the normal flow of the piece that the first stanza establishes with the traditional (but still cut short!) iambic tetrameter, as if seasons are slowly shifting and a snowstorm moves in to take over from warm fall weather.

“At Port Royal” by John Greenleaf Whittier speaks in the voice of “the Negro Boatmen,” glorifying the black population soon to unite and rise to freedom, as “De Lord” intended. Last week, we highlighted this poem, reprinted in the Hampshire Gazette, as an example of the ballad measure. The use of black vernacular by a white author plays into “the Emancipation Question”–Whittier was an outspoken abolitionist and used poetry to advocate for the cause. As discussed last week, this poem uses extremely regular and traditional metric forms: 12 quatrains, with abab rhyme schemes in each stanza, and a refrain. Metrically, the poem is very similar to “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Such a stately meter used with black vernacular language reinforces what the poem aims to do: elevate the black speaker, his cause of freedom, his personhood, to show that emancipation is not only possible but the only moral way to proceed.

A final poem titled “Ease of Work” is about the struggle all authors feel in living up to their best work, even when what they produce surpasses the expectations of their readers.

Articles on Italian landscape art and natural history also appear this month. Dickinson may have had some interest in them, because the natural sciences were considered appropriate for women, and as a child, she worked on multiple herbariums like many other young girls at the time.

“Samuel Bowles and Power”

One of Emily Dickinson’s main correspondents during this period was  Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican.

Samuel Bowles (1826-1878)

Dickinson wrote a cluster of letters to Bowles, which Thomas Johnson dates to “early 1862.” Alfred Habegger, in My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, dates them to late 1861, and Jay Leyda, in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, dates each of them sporadically, and also adds Letter 229, which the other scholars date to February 1861. For simplicity’s sake, and to explore the relationship between Dickinson and Bowles in one place, we present all the letters in a group here.

In Letter 249 Dickinson apologizes for “amazing” Bowles’ “kindness,” perhaps meaning she overstepped a boundary in a previous interaction or correspondence. This letter also contains a poem:

[Sh]ould you but fail
[at] – Sea -
[In] sight of me -
[Or] doomed lie -
[Ne]xt Sun – to die -
[O]r rap – at Paradise -
unheard -
I’d harass God
until he let [you]
Emily.    (F275A)

Bowles traveled by ship to Europe, and Dickinson wishes him well in this letter. The “you” in the poem is evidently very important to the speaker, as she would “harass God” to give her friend eternal peace should his ship go down.

Letter 250 contains a version of “Title divine – is mine!” a poem Dickinson also sent to Susan Dickinson in a much more contained form around 1865. After the poem in the letter to Bowles, Dickinson writes:

Here's – what I had to "tell you" -
You will tell no other? Honor – is it's
own pawn -

As Bowles was the publisher and editor of the Springfield Republican, perhaps the request, “you will tell no other?” asks Bowles to promise not to publish the poem without her consent, as some of her poems were during her life. The phrase,“Honor – is it’s own pawn -,” also concludes Dickinson’s first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (L260), again following a line that asks him not to “betray” her.

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

Through the strait pass
of suffering -
The Martyrs – even – trod.
Their feet – opon Temptation -
Their faces – opon God -
A stately – shriven -
Company -
Convulsion – playing round -
Harmless – as streaks
of meteor -
Opon a Planet's Bond -
Their faith -
the everlasting troth -
Their expectation – fair -
The Needle – to the North
Degree -
Wades – so – thro' polar Air!

The letter preceding the poem seems to be an introduction to it:

If you doubted my Snow – for a moment – you never will – again – I know -
Because I could not say it – I fixed it in the Verse – for you to read – when your thought wavers, for such a foot as mine -

Bowles might have reacted negatively to another poem Dickinson sent to him, and said as much. In response, Dickinson tries to convince him never to “doubt her Snow – for a moment.” The “feet” here also refer to the poetic foot, and Dickinson uses snow and whiteness as a symbol of poetics in other places as well, most relevantly in “Publication – is the Auction” (F788, J709) when the speaker criticizes the publication process as a “foul” thing, one that renders poets as sellouts, something in which the speaker would rather not “invest – Our Snow -”.

Letter 252 thanks Bowles for his gracious understanding, and wishes that he could come to Amherst for a visit that very day. It also encloses another poem about emotional distress:

“Speech” – is a prank
of Parliament -
“Tears” – a trick of
the nerve -
But the Heart with
the heaviest freight
on -
Does'nt – always – move -
Emily.    (F193A)

This poem may be an exploration of the numbness Dickinson refers to in relation to the “terror” she experienced in September of 1861, the exact nature of which is unknown. Bowles was one of her correspondents to hear about it and provide support, which may be the reason for sending such a grateful letter to him and confiding her feelings about power and entitlement to him. 

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Eliot Cardinaux

The word entitle — with its (timely up-)rooting as a term used in gender-, class-, and race-studies, relations, and activism — causes such tremors in the foundations of Western thinking at present in history that I found myself hesitant in writing a reflection on it this week for White Heat. Emily Dickinson’s use of the word seems to be one of meta-positivity, a sort of anointed power vested in the “entitled” provident, that must be respected, along with a self-awareness of the dangers attached to power, generally, that we might see quite readily on the surface of Shakespeare, for one, in his tragedies of royalty.

It seems, however, inversely, to be quite subversive in its seduction, inviting a sort of meta-ironic image of an evil, caught in its own net, as say Baudelaire might have put it, as a flâneur and poet living in Paris around the same time. As a verb of endowment, opening towards an invitation of another’s entitlement, as viewed in the political context that it receives today — seems rather than a “knighting,” or even a “crowning” — to be inviting no less (even more) of a sovereign position whose danger lies in a fall towards tyranny, and to those in a position of power and authority, who would likewise abuse it.

It is in fact, rather than purely a seductive word, also a sobering one.


That church’s space —
is quiet that lonely thing
that sings over morning,

a dusty light fluorescence.

In liminal loneliness, life —
is like some wooden door,
around whom blind corners

turn — on its hinges; to those

who have not yet known it —
a practiced goodbye — are learning it
indeed — that in hymns, it is — already —

procreating endlessly, along tomorrow.


Bio: Eliot Cardinaux is a pianist and poet. He is the founder of The Bodily Press through which he has released the works of others, as well as several of his own chapbooks, including, most recently, Mother of Two. His first album as a leader, American Thicket, was released in 2016 on Loyal Label. His poetry has been featured in Caliban Online, Big Big Wednesday, Hollow, and Bloodroot Literary Magazine. Cardinaux performs and records regularly around the East Coast and in Europe. His latest musical project, Sweet Beyond Witness, is an album of solo piano compositions and spoken word with accompanying writings and film, slated for release in 2018.


Atlantic Monthly, February 15, 1862
Springfield Republican, February 15, 1862

Johnson, Thomas H. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. Archon Books, 1970.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. The Modern Library, 2002.


February 5-11, 1862: Meter

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Dickinson's “Microscopic Meter”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Jesse D. Bright, 1812-1875

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

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

A column titled “Opportunities:”

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

On the Emancipation Question:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Glimpses of Other Worlds”

Hampshire Gazette, February 10, 1862, Amherst College:

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Susan Castillo Street

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

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

Grand Isle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her blog is The Salamander and the Raven.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette,  February 10, 1862



Week of January 22-28: Fascicle 12

Dickinson chose to self-publish fascicles, booklets filled with hundreds of poems and variants, to avoid the pitfalls of the publishing industry. Upon her death, the fascicles were dismantled by her editors and then, in 1981, painstakingly pieced back together. This week, we explore what role the context of the fascicles plays in reading Dickinson’s poems by looking at Fascicle 12.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Madeline Killen

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Book-Making: Fascicle 12

Emily Dickinson was ambivalent about the publishing industry of her time, to say the least. She was aware of the gendered conventions and limitations placed on women writers and thought her poetry would not be conveyed accurately in print. The editorializing of her work both during and after her lifetime shows she was right. A Dickinson poem is hard to capture in a single traditionally printed manuscript or the sea of print and columns that was a mid-nineteenth-century newspaper page. Many of her friends urged her to publish her work, and editors approached her. The ten poems published during her lifetime appeared without her permission or supervision and often caused her consternation.

Instead, Dickinson chose a form of self-publication that allowed her to edit on her own terms and produce multiple fair copies and versions of one poem on a single sheet. She did this by including variants of words and phrases on the fair copies, often indicated by a small cross in the text next to the word with the variants in a list at the bottom or on the sides. The variants thus become a part of the poem, which itself becomes dynamic and performative. From 1858 to around 1864, Dickinson hand sewed the pages together, creating little booklets her first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, called fascicles, which contained hundreds of her poems and thousands of variants.

A Dickinson Fascicle

Dickinson produced forty fascicles (that we know of). She never labeled them or the poems in them, or gave them numbers or titles. When they were discovered after her death, her editors immediately took them apart; now, multiple reconstructions of the fascicles exist, not all agreeing. In 1981, Ralph Franklin undertook a painstaking re-assemblage (based in part on the direction the needle went into the paper!) and printed the fascicles in manuscript, which is the only way we have of reading Dickinson as she presented herself. In an important study from 1992, Sharon Cameron argues that reading Dickinson's poems in the fascicles substantially changes our understanding of her work. The inscrutable, difficult single lyric poem stands in a rich and complex, perhaps, more comprehensible context.  In 2016, Cristanne Miller published a reading edition based on the fascicles titled Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them.

In addition to disagreement over how the sheets go together, there is also lively debate on why the sheets go together – what did Dickinson intend by grouping these specific poems and in that specific order? How does the context of a fascicle inform the reading of her poetry? Why do some poems appear in multiple fascicles? How do the fascicles relate to each other? Some scholars, like Franklin, view the fascicles as merely a way for Dickinson to organize her poems, part of “her workshop” in a period of immense productivity. Others see them as poetic sequences with a consistent narrative or organizations of complex relationships. Cameron goes further, arguing that they represent, as the title of her study pithily puts it, Dickinson Choosing Not Choosing. That is, they illustrate Dickinson’s self-conscious playfulness and her resistance to closure or fixity. We thought it important to explore one of the first fascicles Dickinson put together in early 1862, Fascicle 12.

“Life in Washington. Through the Spectacles of a Lady”


Short news articles appeared this week on the history of French emancipation (presumably to apply to Civil War tactics and the lively emancipation debate in the North), and on the “Rejuvenation of Spain,” referring to the country’s reinvigorated military and economic power at the outset of the Second French Intervention in Mexico, when Spain joined with France and Britain to forcibly collect debts from Mexico after the country declared a suspension of loan payments to foreign creditors.


Victory, with a teeming sense of urgency and anxiety, color this week’s affairs. The Springfield Republican’s “Review of the Week” describes how a “great victory crowns the new campaign,” referring to a battle in Kentucky where the Union obliterated a Confederate camp, seized some supplies, and pushed the enemy into retreat. The Hampshire Gazette contains the full report from Washington, and both papers pulled some quotations from Southern newspapers to show the past few weeks’ effect on Confederate morale. Numerous strong Union victories put a damper on things, and The  Republican concludes that the only hope the “rebels” have is not to lose the whole war very badly. The “educated Southern men” are said to “rebel against the rebels,” and to think that the constant fighting is now pointless.

Also in the Springfield Republican, lengthy war preparation reports from states in New England follow some important upheavals in the North. On January 27, President Lincoln ordered all land and naval troops to advance southward by February 22 (George Washington’s birthday) to avoid Major General McClellan’s vastly unpopular waiting game war tactics. Lincoln also appointed Edwin Stanton as new Secretary of War, replacing Simon Cameron after allegations of corruption surfaced. The Hampshire Gazette chronicles an interview with Lincoln about this cabinet change, to which he replied his cabinet now feels more “cohesive.”

Two op-eds stand out in this week of taxation complaints: one about the unchanging and ever-similar “American Society” of both the North and the South, and one entitled “Life in Washington. Through the Spectacles of a Lady.” An anonymous upper class woman tells of her trip to the Senate to hear Charles Sumner’s speech on the Trent Affair,

Lithograph of Preston Brooks' 1856 attack on Sumner

including the sights of Washington, the distinguished socialites present (including other famous women), the politics discussed and derived from the experience, and the conclusions of the speech. The author makes a point to talk to the reader directly, her tone of voice and astute observations about Washington revealing that a woman, too, can not only engage in public political life but also form her own opinions on the happenings in Washington.

“A State of Constant Flux”

No letters are definitively linked to this week, but then we don’t know exactly when Dickinson wrote most of her letters. Over the next two weeks, Dickinson will pen multiple letters to Samuel Bowles, who is preparing to travel to Europe for his health. Some of these letters included poems, both old and brand new.

Recreated fascicles, Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst

Another task that occupied part of Dickinson’s time was the production of her fascicles, and we focus this week on Fascicle 12. Cristanne Miller dates its sheets from early 1861 all the way to April 1862, and probably later than that. As is clear from the widely varied dates of different sheets, Dickinson was in a state of constant flux and revision with her fascicles, and frequently edited them by taking poems out or putting poems in, editing words and adding alternate choices, and probably re-sewing them together as well.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Madeline Killen

Believe it or not, I made it to age 18 and through an entire American public school education without reading an Emily Dickinson poem. The “Emily Dickinson” card in my mental rolodex had a couple of bullet points — recluse, apparently couldn’t stop for death — but was otherwise blank. Whether related to my Dickinson ignorance or not, I’d also never developed a particular affinity for poetry, choosing the less fair house of prose any day. I disliked that poetry so often felt like a locked chest with one little gem hidden inside; I wasn’t interested in searching for the key to a form that was so eager to resist me.

Yet somehow, as my undergraduate career comes to a close, I find myself writing a senior honors thesis on one of the most interpretation-resistant poets imaginable. In an ironic turn of events, it’s Dickinson’s seeming inaccessibility that makes me love her poetry as much as I do. She’s not inaccessible, she’s impossible; trying to decipher the core meaning of any one of her poems is a completely futile exercise, simply because there isn’t one. Rather than being infuriating, that’s liberating — Dickinson poems change depending on the angle you look at them from, like the smooth side of a seashell in the sunlight. Nowhere is this more striking than in her fascicles, where Dickinson’s choices of order and proximity cause you to lose your grasp on what you believe she’s writing about the moment that you start to feel confident about it.

Poet and visual artist Jen Bervin's composite renderings of Dickinson’s seldom-seen editing marks and word variants

When Fascicle 12 starts with “I taste a liquor never brewed -,” I see a Dickinson in love; can any phrase describe a lover struck by the “extasy” of their reciprocated feelings like “Inebriate of air –”? This leads me to a single reading of the brutal drop in mood from the fascicle’s first poem to the later “I got so I could hear his name -” — a broken heart trying to mend.

I got so I could stir the Box -
In which his letters grew
Without that forcing, in my breath -
As Staples – driven through -

Can any Dickinson reader envision anything now besides Dickinson shifting through her correspondence with Master? But this is the brilliance of Dickinson’s fascicles — “A single Screw of Flesh” depicts a tortured relationship with a “Deity” and casts the preceding poem in a different light. Could the Box in which his letters grew be a Bible? Are we watching Dickinson fall from faith or fall out of love? Both, and neither, and who knows, and what does it matter? We dwell in possibility now.

Bio: Madeline is a member of the Dartmouth class of 2018, where she completed an English honors thesis, supervised by Ivy Schweitzer, that focuses on Dickinson's Fascicle 18. An English major and an Italian minor, she took “The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn” seminar, which inspired her thesis topic, in Winter 2017. A chapter of that thesis on the variants of "Bliss" won the award for best undergraduate essay on Dickinson from the Emily Dickinson International Society in 2018.


Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Dickinson, Emily. Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. Ed. Cristanne Miller. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.

Dickinson, Emily. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. Ed. Ralph Franklin.  Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.

Heginbotham, Eleanor Elson. “Fascicles.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998: 108-09.

Hampshire Gazette, Volume 76, Issue 26. January 28, 1862.

“January 27: This Day In History.” History.com

Springfield Republican, Volume 80, Issue 4. January 25, 1862.



January 15-21, 1862: The Third Master Letter

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

The Third Master Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Curious Intelligence in a Slave”


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Master and Daisy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Renée Bergland

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

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

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

In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe remarks that

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

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

Poems and poets of the first rank remain mysterious,

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


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

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


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

Hampshire Gazette, 14 Jan. 1862.

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

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

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

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

Springfield Republican, 18 Jan. 1862.

This Week in the Civil War






















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

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

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

War, Death, and Influence

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

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

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Harriet Prescott Spofford

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

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

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

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Rose Terry Cooke

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

 According to Cody, the Azarian style was characterized by intoxication and ravishment 

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

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

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

The protagonists in Azarian works are almost always heroines, and matters of the soul and ecstasy are important topics. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a big fan, being a friend and mentor of Spofford and Cooke as well as Dickinson, writing a supportive review of Spofford’s novel Azarian, and mentioning her to Dickinson in at least one letter. We don't have this letter, but we do have Dickinson's response. She said:

I read Miss Prescott’s ‘Circumstance,’ but it followed me, in the Dark – so I avoided her – ( L261).

We leave it to you to decide whether Dickinson was, in fact, a secret disciple of the Azarian School.

“War As An Educator”

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

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


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

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


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

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


“The Value of a Close Friend”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Victoria Corwin

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

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

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

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

the letting go.

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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


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



January 1-7, 1862: The Civil War

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

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

The Start of the Year at the White Heat.

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

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

“Breaking the Backbone of the System”


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

Also, news of the death of Prince Albert, beloved consort of Queen Victoria of England, on December 14 reached the States. His death inaugurated a Victorian culture of mourning (Victoria dressed in black for the rest of her life), but events in Britain laid the backdrop for this culture: Alfred Lord Tennyson's popular elegiac poem, “In Memoriam” (1849) and  the preoccupations of the late Romantics with dying and death. Tennyson's influence on Dickinson will be explored in next week's post. Man. thanks to my colleague Colleen Boggs for this information.


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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating and Mourning

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

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

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

Reverend Charles Wadsworth

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

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

I had just finished a digital humanities project, The Occom Circle, a scholarly digital edition of works by and about Samson Occom (1723-1792), a Mohegan Indian leader, public intellectual and Christian minister. In the course of working on that project, I explored the Dickinson Electronic Archive, an innovative research and teaching tool created by a collective of Dickinson scholars in the wake of the recently digitized Dickinson manuscripts by Harvard University and Amherst College. The world of Dickinson scholarship had been revolutionized in 1981 by the publication of Ralph W. Franklin’s The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, which afforded a unique view of Dickinson’s texts as she wrote (and rewrote and preserved) them. Since then, scholars have been busy “unediting” Dickinson’s writing, as Marta Werner expressed it in Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing. That is, they have been “undoing” a century of editorial and critical work so that we can finally begin to read what Dickinson actually wrote. The digital form of Dickinson’s manuscripts is producing another revolution, again, according to Werner, that is

constellating these works not as still points of meaning or as incorruptible texts but, rather, as events and phenomena of freedom.

I wanted to explore and find a way to present Dickinson’s poems as events of freedom.

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

And so, to the first week in January 1862.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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