December 10-16, 1862: Paradise

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lift the Earth to Paradise”

Springfield Republican, December 13, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, December 16, 1862

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

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

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

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

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

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

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

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

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

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

“Earth so like to Heaven”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From this, Keane concludes,

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Martha Nell Smith

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

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

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

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

out of the storm
February seventeenth /

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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November 12-18, 1862: Crucifixion

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Life in America had Lost Much of its Attraction”

Springfield Republican, November 15, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1

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

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

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

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

"The Sweetest Death"

Hampshire Gazette, November 18, 1862

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

Atlantic Monthly, November 1862

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

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

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

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

“The Man of Sorrow”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Sheila Byers

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

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

Hill of Calvary
Hill of Calvary

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

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

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

Jennifer Leader

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

                                           — Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 29-November 4, 1862: Haunted!

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

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

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

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

“The Air is Full of Farewells”

Springfield Republican, November 1, 1862

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, November 4, 1862

Veliky, Novogprod, Russia
Veliky, Novogprod, Russia

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

Palmer Leg
Palmer Leg

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

Harper’s Monthly, November 1862

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

“Her Goth(ic) Persona”

19th century Halloween
19th century Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Rena J. Mosteirin

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

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

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

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

Do Not Be Afraid

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


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


Hampshire Gazette,
November 4, 1862

Harper's Monthly, November 1862

Springfield Republican, November 1, 1862


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

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

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

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October 22-28, 1862: Queer Dickinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Passing Through the Furnace”

Springfield Republican, October 28, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Plaque in Leamington, England
Plaque in Leamington, England

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

Truly, yours,
A Peaceable Man.”

“Queer Desires”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Victoria Corwin

“Choosing all by choosing nothing”

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

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

But did she really alter the speaker at all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Hampshire Gazette, October 28, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 25, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 15-21, 1862: Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Battle Autumn of 1862”

Springfield Republican, October 18, 1862

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862

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

Harper’s Monthly, October 1862

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

Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

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

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

from “Autumnal Tints” by Henry David Thoreau

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

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

“Red is the Color of Colors”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Autumn

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

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

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

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

but Brexit looms like winter’s chilblains.

Out of Place
             after Adrienne Rich

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

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

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

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

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.


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

Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862

Harper's Monthly, October, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 18, 186

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

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

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October 1-7, 1862: Sixth Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Antietam

This week our post takes as its point of departure Dickinson’s 6th and final letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in 1862, as he is preparing to lead men into battle. It is also the week when the media started extensive coverage of the Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, which occurred on September 17, 1862. It was a decisive and deadly day that would achieve the dubious distinction of being the bloodiest battle in US history, and also the first to be photographed. This new technology brought the consequences of war into the homes of noncombatants and would change war journalism forever.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Sarah Khatry

This week our point of departure is Dickinson’s 6th and final letter (L274) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in 1862; they continued to correspond until the very end of Dickinson’s life. At this time, Higginson was busy recruiting and training troops from Massachusetts for the War, but in November would accept an extraordinary commission: command of the First South Carolina regiment composed of freed slaves. Even though Dickinson’s letter indicates a lull in their correspondence, which began in April 1862, her exchanges with Higginson will prove to be crucial in Dickinson’s life.

This week in 1862 saw the first extensive coverage of the Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, which occurred on September 17, 1862. It was a decisive and deadly battle that would achieve the dubious distinction of being the bloodiest battle in US history. It also had the distinction of being one of the first battles to be extensively recorded by an emerging technology that would change the face of war journalism forever: photography. Matthew Brady sent two photographers to the battlefield who captured the battle’s horrifying aftermath. These images, in photographic exhibitions and as illustrations, circulated widely and contributed to a new, appalling recognition—reflected in the poetry of Emily Dickinson—of just how costly this fratricidal war was. For this post, we draw on work by Sarah Khatry, Dartmouth ’17, from an assignment she did for Ivy’s “New Dickinson” junior colloquium in Winter 2017.

“The Dead of Antietam”

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“Another week of rest and preparation. There have been only preliminary reconnaissances towards the enemy either in Virginia or in Kentucky. But it is now evident that the enemy is checkmated and has reached the limit of his aggressive movements, and that is a great deal, when we look back a single month and see where we were then and what were our fears and forebodings.”

Books, Authors and Art, page 3

Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712-1786)
Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712-1786)

“A great rarity in the shape of coins has lately been sold at Paris—namely, a silver one struck off at Breslau in 1751. Among the persons employed at the time in the mint was an Austrian, who, out of hatred to Frederick II of Prussia, conceived the idea of revenging himself on that monarch in the following manner:—The motto on the coin, ‘Ein reichs thaler’ (a crown of the kingdom), he divided in such a manner as to make it read, ‘Ein reich stahler’ (he stole a kingdom). The king ordered those insulting coins to be melted down, but some few of them still exist.”

English Beauty, page 6
“I have heard a good deal of the tenacity with which English ladies retain their personal beauty to a late period of life; but (not to suggest that an American eye needs use and cultivation before it can quite appreciate the charm of an English beauty at any age) it strikes me that an English lady of fifty is apt to become a creature less refined and delicate, so far as her physique goes, than anything that we western people class under the name of woman. Yet, somewhere in this bulk must be hidden the modest, slender, violet-nature of a girl, whom an alien mass of earthliness has unkindly overgrown.”

Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

Position of McClellan’s Army, page 1
“Gen. McClellan still had his headquarters near Sharpsburg yesterday, when Gen. Sumner occupied Boliver Heights. It is evident to us that there will be a movement on Gen. McClellan’s part as soon as his army is properly supplied by the quartermaster’s department. Our troops are in the best possible spirits, and eager again to get at the rebels, who must be suffering dreadful torments.”

Getting Rich, page 1
“Men are never richer on their millions than on their thousands or hundreds—they are never satisfied, whatever they have; they are never blessed, but always to be blessed. We start out in the world without a cent, and think, while we toil for a mere pittance, that if we had a house over our heads we could call our own, we should be independent and contented; then we want five or ten thousand dollars; and by the time that has accumulated, the expenses of living have pressed upward so fast that we must double it to keep clear of absolute want.”

Harper’s Monthly Illustrated Magazine, October 4, 1862

[from a full description of each stage of the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg, with illustrations.]“The battle began with the dawn. Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other’s eyes… A battery was almost immediately pushed forward beyond the central woods, over a plowed field, near the top of the slope where the corn-field began. On this open field, in the corn beyond, and in the woods, which stretched forward into the broad fields like a promontory into the ocean, were the hardest and deadliest struggles of the day… But out of those gloomy woods came suddenly and heavily terrible volleys—volleys which smote, and bent, and broke in a moment that eager front, and hurled them swiftly back for half the distance they had won. Not swiftly, nor in panic, any further. Closing up their shattered lines, they came slowly away—a regiment where a brigade had been, hardly a brigade where a whole division had been, victorious. They had met from the woods the first volleys of musketry from fresh troops—had met them and returned them till their line had yielded and gone down before the weight of fire, and till their ammunition was exhausted…The field and its ghastly harvest which the reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us. Four times it had been lost and won. The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you can not guide your horse’s steps too carefully. Pale and bloody faces are every where upturned. They are sad and terrible, but there is nothing which makes one’s heart beat so quickly as the imploring look of sorely wounded men who beckon wearily for help which you can not stay to give.”

“You Saved my Life”

Dickinson’s plaintive letter to Higginson this week (L274) indicates her increasing dependence on their epistolary relationship and her ostensible desire to “please” him. In fact, Dickinson usually argued with and ultimately ignored Higginson's advice on her writing. But as a figure in and of the world of letters and actions, he provided her with an important and invaluable contact. In a letter from June 1869, she confessed to him:

Of our greatest acts we are ignorant –
You were not aware that you saved my Life. (L330)

Still, it is no wonder that Higginson did not have time to write to Dickinson in the Fall of 1862. She last wrote to him in response to his letter sometime in August. By October 6th, she had not gotten a response from him and penned her plaintive inquiry. According to historian Ethan Kytle, during the fall, Higginson

was recruiting and then training boys from his adopted hometown of Worcester, Mass., to serve in the [Massachusetts] 51st. . . After declining an officer’s commission in the early months of the Civil War, the 38-year-old Transcendentalist minister had decided that if “antislavery men” expected to influence the conduct and settlement of the conflict, then they “must take part in it.”

He thus accepted a commission as a captain and wrote in a letter about this company that he “already loved [them] like my own children.”

In a month, though, Higginson would be offered the command of the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, which was comprised of freed slaves. According to Sage Stossel,

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announced by President Lincoln in September 1862 allowed the Union army to recruit blacks. … [Higginson] kept a diary of the experience, which was later excerpted in The Atlantic as “Leaves From an Officer’s Journal” (1864) and subsequently released as a book, Army Life in a Black Regiment.

Meanwhile, newspapers and journals began their detailed coverage of the horrific battle of Antietam. Because of the rather long news cycle (certainly longer than ours), this coverage would continue well into December. As Sarah Khatry notes: “The farther from the event itself, the closer and more detailed the coverage became.” In her exploration of this event in Dickinson’s life, Sarah focused

not so much on the immediate events of the Civil War during that week, but on their transmission and how Emily Dickinson would have encountered them … Through image—photograph and illustration—through prose—news, letters, narratives—and through personal connection.

From the coverage in Harper’s, we can infer that illustrations, often based on the new technology of photography, played a large role.

In fact, two days after the battle, Matthew Brady sent Alexander Gardner and James Gibson to Maryland to photograph the aftermath of the bloodiest battle in US history. A month later, Brady set up an exhibit of almost 100 pictures in his gallery on Broadway in New York City called, simply, “The Dead of Antietam.” The photographs were so sharp, viewers could make out faces, and so unfiltered as to bring the effects of the war, before remote and abstract, into unmistakable focus for the first time. Some of the illustrations Dickinson might have seen in Harper’s were based on Brady’s gut-wrenching photographs.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Reflection: “Trauma and the Image”

Sarah Khatry

Sarah KhatryThe real-time scholarly project of White Heat invites not only engagement with the week-by-week experience of Emily Dickinson’s life in 1862, but juxtaposition with our own. This past week seems an appropriate one to reflect upon the real and traumatic individual impact of nationwide events, even those transmitted to us only through image.

The modes and means of transmission have changed. As this week’s poems demonstrate, Dickinson experienced the Civil War and particularly the battle of Antietam through the personal impact on her family and community, the vivid magazine and newspaper reporting of the day, and also the then-developing technology of photography.

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down -
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl -
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool -

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine -

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some -

When everything that ticked – has stopped -
And space stares – all around -
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground -

But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool -
Without a Chance, or spar -
Or even a Report of Land -
To justify – Despair.
(F 355)

In her essay, “Death’s Surprise, Stamped Visible,” Eliza Richards draws upon the poem above, finding in the third stanza a rather direct description of a famous photograph by Andrew Gardner and James Gibson of the bodies after the Battle of Antietam: “The Figures I have seen / Set orderly, for Burial”.

I will attempt to take this reading further, and argue an even stronger correlation. In the first two stanzas, Dickinson establishes a multi-fold disconnect between the experience the poem describes and the speaker’s subjectivity. “It was not Death” because the speaker is on her feet, not dead, and whatever it is she contemplates is not death itself, but something like it. That object or experience is also at a remove in time for her, for she hears the bells tolling noon, but she must remind herself it is not night. The sensory experience being conveyed, as described in the second stanza, is similarly disassociated from the speaker—

And yet, it tasted, like them all” (l. 5)

These first two stanzas could describe the experience of standing before a photograph, one of such power and visceral empathy that the speaker has to repeatedly emphasize to herself that she is not there. She is not one of “The Figures … Set orderly, for Burial.” It is not her life “shaven, / and fitted to a frame” but the lives she considers, quite possibly those belonging to the dead of Antietam.

In the word “Autumn” (l. 19), Richards findss phonetic similarity with Antietam, driven home by Dickinson’s poem below, evocative of the massacre and excess of a battlefield:

The name — of it — is “Autumn” —
The hue — of it — is Blood —
An Artery — upon the Hill —
A Vein — along the Road —

Great Globules — in the Alleys —
And Oh, the Shower of Stain —
When Winds — upset the Basin —
And spill the Scarlet Rain —

It sprinkles Bonnets — far below —
It gathers ruddy Pools —
Then — eddies like a Rose — away —
Upon Vermilion Wheels —
(F 465)

No New England fall, I believe, clamors for such blood-filled celebration. But Antietam occurred in mid-September, the advent of autumn, and its traumatic bloodshed, spilling as if from an “Artery — upon the Hill,” traveled up the Veins, the roads, of the nation, spilled into alleyways and sprinkled Bonnets far from the battlefield.

The speaker in “It was not Death” feels, by the final line, despair. The figures set for burial are frozen equally by death and by the photographic medium. They are “Without a Chance, or spar – / or even a Report” (ll. 22-23), paralyzed and mute, unable to give voice or justification to the despair of the speaker.

It can feel almost without justification to despair over the trauma of a distant stranger. But in moments of national crisis and discord, the trauma comes home to the individual, if not in the form of a direct parallel experience, but in the mirror of empathy. We have seen that in recent events. During the day of testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford last week, the RAINN sexual assault hotline saw a 147% increase in calls, according to Abigail Abrams.

Far different events, more immediate modes of transmission, new lines of division … but still we and Emily Dickinson’s speaker must remind ourselves it was not me, and reconcile the reality of what did transpire, and to whom, and what it means.

Abrams, Abigail. “National Sexual Assault Hotline Spiked 147% During Ford Hearing.” Time, 27 Sept. 2018.

Richards, Eliza. “‘Death's Surprise, Stamped Visible’: Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Civil War Photography.” Amerikastudien 54.1 (2009): 13-33, 27.


Bio: Sarah Khatry received a BA in physics and English from Dartmouth College in 2017. Her novella Ritual won the Sidney Cox Memorial Prize in 2015. Her nonfiction appears in 40 Towns, the Dartmouth, and elsewhere.


Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

Harper's Monthly, October, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862


Khatry, Sarah. “December 7-14: A Nation Infused by Trauma.” Assignment for Eng 62. Dartmouth College. Winter 2017.

Kytle, Ethan J. “Captain Higginson Takes Command.The Opinionator: A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web. November 16, 2012.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Leaves from an Officer’s Journal.” Introduced by Sage Stossel. Atlantic Monthly 1864.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Birds are the Poor Man’s Music”

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

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

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

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

Poetry, page 6

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

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

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

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

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

“Small, like the Wren”

                                                                   by Christine Gerhardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Christine Gerhardt

New England Robin
New England Robin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

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August 13-19, 1862: Emerson and Thoreau

This week in 1862, Emily Dickinson probably read in the Atlantic Monthly Ralph Waldo Emerson’s biographical sketch of his friend Henry David Thoreau, who died on May 6, 1862 at the age of 45. We take our cue from this to explore Dickinson’s literary debt to Emerson, at the time an eminent man of letters and leading exponent of “Transcendentalism,” as well as to Thoreau, considered Emerson’s disciple but an original thinker in his own right.

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This Week in Biography
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This Week's Reflection – Marianne Noble

“Emerson and Thoreau”

This week in 1862 Emily Dickinson probably read in the Atlantic Monthly Ralph Waldo Emerson’s biographical sketch of his friend Henry David Thoreau, who died on May 6, 1862 at the age of 45. We take our cue from this to explore Dickinson’s literary debt to Emerson, at the time an eminent man of letters and leading exponent of “Transcendentalism.” We also consider her debt to Thoreau, regarded as Emerson’s disciple but an original thinker in his own right. Thoreau shared with Dickinson an investment in what scholars are now calling “vitalist materialism,” which we explored in the earlier post on Gardens and reprise here in more detail.

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

Emerson has come up numerous times in these posts as a thinker and writer whose ideas and phrases struck deep chords in Dickinson. Indeed, Jack Capps observes that

of all American authors whom she read, Emily Dickinson can be most closely associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 He also notes that “Success,”the only poem published in her lifetime that garnered critical attention, was attributed to Emerson. Still, it is important to consider the ways she revises Emerson and diverges from Transcendental idealism.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Dickinson only mentions Thoreau twice in her correspondence, but scholars like Yanbin Kang trace her references to Eastern thought to

Dickinson’s life-long responses towards Henry David Thoreau’s construction of the East.

We will explore Emerson’s eulogy for his friend and how it may have struck Dickinson, his mentorship of both Thoreau and Dickinson, and their shared concerns with vitalist materialism and its radical political implications.

“Genius Makes its Observations in Shorthand”

Springfield Republican, August 16, 1862

General Jackson at Winchester, Virginia 1862
General Jackson at Winchester, Virginia 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“Our expectations in regard to the Virginia campaign have been fulfilled. A new series of battles has commenced, and the result thus is far better than we had reason to expect. Stonewall Jackson did not await the concentration of Gen. Pope’s army to attack in force, but with his usual admirable energy, made an unexpected dash across the Rapidan and hurled his whole army upon the unsupported corps of Gen. Banks.

The Sin of the North, page 4
“It is time we had begun to know something of our relations to this [African] race, and to appreciate the wrongs we have inflicted upon it. It is the habit of the northern mind, or has been since the rebellion began, to wonder why the peculiar sin of the South should be permitted to bring such bitterness of punishment upon the North. But Count Gasparin finds [the sin of the North] here in our treatment of the free negroes—the only representatives of the African race with whom we have come in contact.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 7
“Genius makes its observations in short hand; talent writes them out at length.”

Disagreeable People, page 7 [reprinted from the Atlantic Monthly]
“There is nothing more disagreeable, and few things more mischievous, than a well-meaning, meddling fool. And where there was no special intention, good or bad, towards yourself, you have known people make you uncomfortable through the simple exhibition to you, and pressure upon you, of their own agreeable disagreeableness.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 19, 1862

Amherst, page 2
“There is considerable building in progress in Amherst, particularly in the vicinity of the depot. L. M. Hills & Son are preparing to build two fine residences for themselves. It is expected that these will be the most elegant houses in the town. Their shaker hood business is very prosperous.”

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Dinah Maria Craik (1826-1887)
Dinah Maria Craik (1826-1887)

Mistress and Maid: A Household Story, page 229 [by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik]
“The scarlet face, the entreating tones—there was no resisting them. One natural pang Hilary felt—that in her short poverty she had fallen so low as to be indebted to her servant, and then too she blushed, less for shame at accepting the kindness than for her own pride that she could not at once receive it as such.”

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Thoreau”
“The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost."

Posts, a plaque, and a rock cairn mark the site of Thoreau's cabin near the shore of Walden Pond. J. Walter Green / AP
Posts, a plaque, and a rock cairn mark the site of Thoreau's cabin near the shore of Walden Pond. J. Walter Green / AP

He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 12th of July, 1817. He was graduated at Harvard College in 1837, but without any literary distinction. An iconoclast in literature, he seldom thanked colleges for their service to him, holding them in small esteem, whilst yet his debt to them was important. After leaving the University, he joined his brother in teaching a private school, which he soon renounced. His father was a manufacturer of lead-pencils, and Henry applied himself for a time to this craft, believing he could make a better pencil than was then in use. After completing his experiments, he exhibited his work to chemists and artists in Boston, and having obtained their certificates to its excellence and to its equality with the best London manufacture, he returned home contented. His friends congratulated him that he had now opened his way to fortune. But he replied, that he should never make another pencil. "Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once." He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual science.

… he had a perfect probity, was exact in securing his own independence, and in holding every man to the like duty. But Thoreau never faltered. He was a born protestant. He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well.

“His Transcendental Arm”

When Emerson spoke in Amherst for the first time on December 16, 1857, he had already had been lecturing widely in his role as “the Sage of Concord.” That he stayed with Austin and Susan Dickinson at the Evergreens was an indication of just how high their social status had risen in the town. Emerson’s topic was “The Beautiful in Rural Life,” and, as noted by Jay Leyda, the report of the Hampshire and Franklin Express for December 18 captures the reigning opinion of Transcendentalism in that stronghold of conservative Congregationalism:

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lecture greatly disappointed all who listened. It was in the English language instead of the Emersonese in which he usually clothes his thoughts, and the thoughts themselves were such as any plain common-sense person could understand and appreciate.

Susan Dickinson wrote in her journal, “Annals of the Evergreen:”

I remember very little of the lecture except a fine glow of enthusiasm on my own part. … I felt strangely elated to take his transcendental arm afterwards and walk leisurely home.

Despite Sue’s enchantment, Dickinson refused to meet Emerson on this occasion, complaining that she did not want to be introduced as someone’s [Austin’s] sister. It is unclear whether she attended the lecture, but she certainly heard from Sue about its contents. Sue reports Dickinson’s impression of Emerson at that time:

As if he had come from where dreams are born.

Dickinson’s refusal to meet the eminent visitor as merely a relation of his host might be connected to her own growing sense of vocation. Very soon, in 1858, she would commence gathering her poems into hand-sewn booklets known as “fascicles.” We know that Emerson was an important source for the young poet because her first “gentle, yet Grave Preceptor,” Benjamin Franklin Newton (1821-1853), a student in her father’s law office during 1847-49 and a frequent visitor to the family, sent her a copy of Emerson’s Poems (1847), his first volume of collected poetry, as a farewell gift. Newton was Dickinson’s first contact with the liberal-leaning Unitarian version of Christianity championed by Emerson. In his recommendations, Newton offered the nineteen-year old poet-in-the-making a view of human dignity and sovereignty of self more elevating than her family’s Congregationalism with its dour Calvinist teachings about innate depravity and a wrathful God. The first person to encourage Dickinson’s poetic sensibility, Newton opened a new world of spirituality and reading to her, and his gift of Emerson’s poetry had a lasting effect. He marked several poems for her special perusal, which we will discuss in the Poems section.

Dickinson mentioned Thoreau twice in her letters (L320 and L961) but with a familiarity that bespoke a deep engagement. For example, in August 1866, she wrote to Sue, who was vacationing at the seashore, and asked:

Was the Sea cordial? Kiss him for Thoreau –.

Thomas Johnson speculates that Dickinson and Sue might have been reading Thoreau’s Cape Cod, which appeared in 1865. The Dickinson family library contained two copies of Walden (1862), A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1862) inscribed with “E. Dickinson” and Letters to Various Persons (1865).

Scholars have long noted their shared engagement in nature and what the 19th century called natural history. More recently, investigations into the period’s debates over the nature of life have turned up a mutual interest in what Branka Arsic identifies as “vitalist materialism,” more traditionally known as “pantheism,” the belief that all matter in the world is imbued with life, often described as the “spirit” or “breath” of God or the divine. The 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, was a proponent of pantheism as was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English Romantic. Arsic  finds that “Harvard [University] was a center of vitalistic progressive philosophies at least as of 1824” and into the 1840s, and that these scientists would have influenced Thoreau’s belief in the “substantial coincidence of the divine and material.”

Similarly, in illustrating what she sees as Dickinson’s belief in the feelings of plants, Mary Kuhn explores the period’s “debate over plant sentience” and finds a similar academic grounding for these ideas, quoting Thoreau’s musing that

the mystery of the life of plants is kindred with that of our own lives.

A link between these two findings is William Smellie’s The Philosophy of Natural History, updated by John Ware to include the new ideas of vitalism. This was the textbook Thoreau used in his studies of natural history, a copy of which remained in his library. It was also on the list of textbooks Jack Capps provides for courses at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary the year Dickinson attended. For both these writers, a belief in vitalism and in plant sentience had important ethical, political and ecological implications. In unseating the human as exceptional and blurring the line between natural objects and perceiving subjects, these beliefs lead to a more radically democratic notion of the material world and our (non-exceptionalist) place in it.

Another source of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s influence on Dickinson is in the writing of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Richard Sewall notes that in times of disappointment in his life, Higginson would retreat into nature. In 1848, he was dismissed by his liberal Unitarian congregation in Newburyport, MA, for his radical views, which included visits from the radical abolitionist John Brown, the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, the fugitive slave William Wells Brown, and a lecture he organized at the Newburyport Lyceum despite the objection of the majority of the board, by Emerson.

In 1850, Higginson visited Thoreau and found his simplified way of life congenial and healing. Similarly, after the failure of John Brown’s raid in Fall 1859, Higginson retreated to his natural haunts and wrote extensively in his journals. Before Dickinson contacted him in April 1862, Higginson published four nature studies in the Atlantic Monthly, written, according to Sewall, “in the shadow of Thoreau and Emerson,” which Dickinson “probably read” before she contacted him. Despite his “dilution of these masters,” Higginson modeled for Dickinson a close and deeply informed observation of nature and its seasonal changes, precise botanical knowledge, and an apprehension of the power and mystery of the natural world.

Emerson’s biographical sketch of Thoreau in the Atlantic Monthly would have also affected Dickinson. In a discussion of Emerson’s “anti-mentoring” of Thoreau and Dickinson, Lawrence Buell charts the changing effect of the 1862 sketch:

In the short run, the essay contributed to the bracketing of Thoreau as a minor figure, the quirky sidekick, and later, “the bachelor of thought and nature.” … Not long after, though, it started to become common practice to rescue Thoreau from Emerson’s clutches and chastise the memoir’s patronizing parts,

such as the passage quoted in the History section that rebukes Thoreau for his lack of “ambition.”

What might have appealed to Dickinson is Emerson’s account of Thoreau’s dismissal of the bustling world and professional concerns in order to wrestle

with graver questions … He interrogated every custom … and few lives contain so many renunciations.

She would have resonated with “his fancy for referring everything to the meridian of Concord,” just as she thought Amherst was heaven on earth. Also, that “His interest in the flower or the bird lay deep in his mind” and that “he had the source of poetry in his spiritual perception.” Emerson spends several paragraphs on Thoreau’s poetry and one can see Dickinson alighting on this passage:

He knew the worth of the Imagination for the uplifting and consolation of human life, and he liked to throw every thought into a symbol. The fact you tell is of no value, but only the impression. For this reason his presence was poetic, always piqued the curiosity to know more deeply the secrets of his mind. He had many reserves, an unwillingness to exhibit to profane eyes what was still sacred in his own, and knew well how to throw a poetic veil over his experience.

Buell ultimately sees a “mutuality” in this mentoring relationship, in which Thoreau’s “uncompromising integrity” becomes in Emerson 's view “both a personal aspiration and a personal lack.” Buell ends his discussion by considering Dickinson as a figure “often claimed to have been” an Emerson mentee, though mostly through Higginson, “her personal ‘preceptor’-designate,” who was himself a “derivative” of Emerson and Thoreau. Though Buell mischaracterizes Dickinson as “timid” and needing “the sanction of authority Emerson and Thoreau never did,” (perhaps because they were males in a male-dominated society?), he concludes:

Dickinson is the prototype of the brilliant mentee who figures out how to make the best of a much less perceptive mentor.

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Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Marianne Noble

“Vital Materialism” is a wonderful term. This notion of a connection with nature that does not involve looking past the material world to the spirit that is its (supposedly) true nature represents an inspiring attitude towards the natural environment. It finds spirituality in aliveness itself. I appreciate the insight that this approach characterizes both Dickinson and Thoreau.

This blog post got me to wondering about which Thoreau works Dickinson might have encountered before reading Emerson’s obituary (all of the works mentioned in the blog date from 1862 or later). It is quite likely that she read Thoreau’s “Chesuncook” in the Atlantic Monthly of June 1858. I looked this essay up, and was astonished by the way the opening sounds like a hymn to vital materialism:

Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to the light,—to see its perfect success; but most are content to behold it in the shape of many broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true success. But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure. There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. . . . Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

In the second paragraph, Thoreau stresses that the one who best understands the pine tree is the poet, “who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it.” The poet loves the pines “as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand:”

when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that [industrial uses] were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.*

When Thoreau says he sympathizes with the living spirit of the tree, feeling connections of kinship and similarity, he is stressing the spiritual continuity of living things. His sympathy heals his cuts, which themselves seem to resemble the cuts inflicted on felled trees. Thoreau is every bit as wounded by a utilitarian approach to things as the trees are, and when he focuses on his kinship with the pine trees rather than his dominion over them, he discovers that he heals those ruptures in his soul.

In claiming that the pine trees are “as immortal as I am,” Thoreau claims a different notion of immortality from that of the conventional Christian imaginary. It is not quite clear what it is, though it suggests an immortality of the unified cosmos, the spirit-infused material world, rather than a separate world where human souls resume their worldly conditions. To feel the immortality of the pines is to feel the immortality of the spirit-infused material world that lives, changes, and grows.

Thoreau’s notion of knowing “whether” something’s “heart is false without cutting into it” sounds a lot like Dickinson’s poem “Split the Lark” (F905A, J861). In this poem, a skeptic wants to know if his bird is true and proposes to “split the lark.” The speaker seems to say, “Go ahead—the music is inside, like flower bulbs rolled in silver.” And yet, the speaker does not really endorse this splitting approach to understanding. As the poem develops, she criticizes this penetrative approach as a “scarlet experiment” that will kill the lark. She echoes Thoreau’s conviction that a “pine cut down” is not a pine, just as a human carcass is not a man, just as a dead lark is not a lark. A lark, like a pine tree, is a living thing, and its beauty is not a spiritual essence haunting a material carcass; it is an unleashing of vitality into the world. It is an intersubjective and networked spiritual quality. Living things must be understood as living things, not as potential industrial products.

Vital materialism strikes me as a timely concept in our Anthropocenic days. If we try to lean into the ways that we are one with the natural world, we might find ourselves moved to heal the wounds we have inflicted upon the world. And in doing so, Dickinson and Thoreau suggest, we might heal the wounds that the world has inflicted upon ourselves.

*According to Thoreau Historical Society, “Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Chesuncook,’ the second essay of The Maine Woods, is well known for the controversy resulting from Atlantic Monthly editor James Russell Lowell’s decision to remove a now famous sentence referring to a pine tree.” That excision is the last sentence of this quotation, which makes the case for vital materialism – and more. See: See Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Chesuncook: Textual Notes,” in The Maine Woods, by Henry David Thoreau (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 435. 

Bio: Marianne Noble is Associate Professor of English at American University. Her teaching and research interests include American literature, culture studies, and gender studies, with a particular emphasis on the construction of sexuality in nineteenth-century American women's literature. She is the author of The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (Princeton UP 2000), which won a Choice Outstanding Book Award. She has recently published articles on gothic and sentimental literature and is currently working on a book entitled Sympathy and the Quest for Genuine Human Contact in American Romanticism.


Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 113.

Kang, Yanbin. “Dickinson’s Allusions to Thoreau’s East.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. 29:2, 92-97, 92.

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, August 19, 1862

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Springfield Republican, August 16, 1862

Arsic, Branka. Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2016, 124-25, 134.

Buell, Lawrence. “Emersonian Anti-Mentoring: From Thoreau to
Dickinson and Beyond.” Michigan Quarterly Review 41:3 (2002 Summer), 347-60.

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 196, 189-90.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958, 455.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Thoreau.” Atlantic Monthly 10, 58, August, 1862.

Kuhn, Mary. “Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility.” ELH 85,  1, (Spring 2018): 141-170, 156.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 1: 351-52.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 115 note 15; 468, 546-47, 568 (includes Susan Dickinson's
“Annals of the Evergreens.”).

Thoreau, Henry David. Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript. Ed. Bradley P. Dean. New York: Norton, 2001, 242.

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June 11-17, 1862: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

This week we explore the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) on Dickinson, occasioned by Dickinson request in a letter to Samuel Bowles, traveling in Europe for his health, that “if you touch her Grave, put one hand on the Head for me – her unmentioned Mourner.”

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Dickinson's room with three portraits
Dickinson's room with three portraits

Only three portraits hung in the corner bedroom of a very selective Emily Dickinson: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Take a virtual tour here). This week we explore the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) on Dickinson, occasioned by Dickinson's request in a letter to Samuel Bowles, who was traveling in Europe for his health, that

if you touch her Grave, put one hand on the Head for me – her unmentioned Mourner.

Dickinson knew that Bowles would try to visit the grave of this famous writer because he took two books with him on his tour: the Bible and Barrett Browning’s epic poem Aurora Leigh. Many consider Barrett Browning to be Dickinson’s most important and beloved literary foremother.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
We will explore what drew Dickinson to Barrett Browning, from a literary as well as a personal perspective. While Barrett Browning is best known these days for Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), a series of love poems to her husband, we will focus on the epic novel-poem, Aurora Leigh, published in 1856 and read by Dickinson in the late 1850s-early 1860s. Condemned by some contemporary reviewers as too frank about taboo subjects like female desire, prostitution, and rape, it achieved critical acclaim and wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although Aurora Leigh fell out of the canon in the first half of the 20th century, feminist scholars recovered it and study it as the first, first person account of a woman poet’s coming of age, struggling against conservative Victorian social conventions, gender restrictions, and her own conflicting desires for love. In Literary Women, Ellen Moers called it

the epic poem of the literary woman herself.

As such, it spoke volumes to a young aspiring poet in rural Massachusetts.

“The Woman that Writes”


Springfield Republican, June 14, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1

This week has been one of prosperity to the union arms, though no great movements have occurred. No considerable action has taken place before Richmond. At no point has there been a rebel gain.

Verbal Foundlings, page 2

There are some words of doubtful parentage, words picked up in the street, or dropped mysteriously at some hospitable door. If they receive shelter and kind treatment, they sometimes develop into useful members of society, but too often, like other orphans, they are overworked in their youth and afterwards ignore or neglected. In such cases what must be our emotions when we learn that the mysterious stranger is of ancient and eminent parentage.

Civilization in Africa and in Dixie, page 2

But with all the advantages and benefits derived from the peculiar institution [of slavery], [human inhabitants of equatorial Africa] are still savages, and there is nothing beautiful or fascinating about them, not even when they smile. They are, however, valiant warriors, and excel in the manufacture of arms, particularly in the spear and the sword. Why, the weapons of war made by those savages are as much superior to those manufactured by the chivalry of the South, as those of Damascus or Chicapoo are superior to those produced by the savages. If those weapons [of the South], thousands of which have been taken from captured rebels, should be exhibited to the wild cannibals of Africa, they would exclaim, “What barbarians made these shocking looking knives and swords!”

The Woman That Writes, page 6

Grace Fenton was only twelve years of age, and although her quick scholarship had given her a place in the first class, yet nobody thought of her writing a theme for the occasion. As she blushingly went through [her composition], her fellow pupils whispered to each other—“Grace never wrote that;” “Her father helped her;” “Certainly, of course.” But there was one among the visitors who rose and said:—
“The written exercises are highly creditable to the ingenuity and skill of the writers. Some of them are proofs of patient research and great judgment in selection, but the brief and artless essay to which we last listened was given us not only by the writer but by the author.”
In these brief and sensible remarks was a single word that proved fated to Grace’s peace. “The author.”

Poetry, page 6

Three poems appeared in this week’s Republican; all included themes of death, country living. and faith.

Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862

Immediate Emancipation, page 2

The emancipation movement does not progress fast enough for many people. If a desire to see that institution banished from the land is abolitionism, then we are all abolitionists. On that point we are all united; yet on the question of immediate and general emancipation, there are wide differences of opinion.

The Atlantic Monthly, June 15, 1862

“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know; but I have grounds to suspect that most of them do not stand it at all.

Harper’s Monthly, June 1862, page 123

There is a poem of Mrs. Browning’s in the “Last Poems,” lately published, which is the most pathetic and passionate expression of the woe of a mother who loses both her boys in the Italian war of liberation [“Mother and Poet” p. 183]. If you do not happen to like Mrs. Browning’s poems, as the Country Parson says he cannot read Carlyle, it is not necessary to read the stanzas I am going to quote. But don’t for a moment imagine that you have said a fine thing in saying so, or that you have shown yourself to be downright common-sensible. You may not like Shakespeare’s music, the odor of magnolias—but they are good.

“Her Unmentioned Mourner”

By the time of her death in 1861, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had achieved wide international success as a prolific poet and outspoken liberal voice on issues like child labor reform and abolitionism. When Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked Dickinson, in his response to her first letter dated April 15, 1862, who and what she read, she responded “– For Poets – I have Keats – and Mr and Mrs Browning” (L261). Though scholars find echoes of Robert Browning’s poetry in Dickinson’s verse, Barrett Browning was the much larger and more significant influence for Dickinson in her formative years.

Robert Browning (1812-1889)
Robert Browning (1812-1889)

As Higginson observed in an 1854 letter to Robert Browning, her widely reviewed collection Poems [1844; expanded 1850, 1853, 1856] made

Mrs. Browning’s poems . . . household words in Massachusetts to every school boy & (yet more) every school girl.

A supporter of women’s rights, Higginson recognized the importance of Barrett Browning as a model for young women who aspired to independence and careers. In addition, Barrett Browning’s story was compelling and romantic. She showed early poetic prowess, but an illness and a riding injury made her an invalid and kept her frail throughout her life. After the poet Robert Browning read her poetry, they began a correspondence that blossomed into romance and a secret elopement against her father’s wishes.

Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881)
Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881)

It is important to note, however, that Higginson’s feminism was a minority position. By contrast, Josiah Gilbert Holland, another of Dickinson’s close friends and the literary editor and part owner of the Springfield Republican, was an antifeminist who opposed women’s rights to vote and own property. In 1858, he published an essay, “Women in Literature,” in which he expressed the fairly widespread idea, explicitly countered by Barrett Browning, that men have principles while women express fancies. He also dismissed Dickinson’s beloved Aurora Leigh, along with another passionate favorite, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

Scholars argue that Dickinson was drawn to Barret Browning because of similarities in their social situations. The Englishwoman was from a gentrified, middle class family, with roots in the creole plantation culture of Jamaica, had a docile mother, who birthed twelve children, a strong-willed, tyrannical father, and a favorite brother. She came to her love and study of poetry early, was self-educated, and suffered illness and injury which kept her a recluse for many years. She even had a constant canine companion named Flush (a cocker spaniel whom Virginia Woolf famously wrote about), counterpart to Dickinson’s Carlo.

The resemblance stops there, though, for Barrett Browning eagerly published her work, courted popularity, and was outspoken on contemporary social issues. She had a whirlwind courtship with the dashing younger poet, Robert Browning, married him and moved to Italy, where her health improved and allowed her to have a child. She managed to combine literature and love, work and motherhood in a way that Dickinson could not or chose not to. Some scholars speculate that Barrett Browning lived the life Dickinson dreamed of, while Betsy Erkkila contends that we should pay attention to the differences between them, and that Dickinson was, in some sense, truer to her “better self” and a more radical vision of women’s art and independence.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen
Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen, 1860

Still, Barrett Browning’s struggles as a woman and poet and her notion of the noble and sacred vocation of poetry spoke to Dickinson. She owned the 1859 edition of Aurora Leigh and first referred to it in her letters in 1861. In nine books of blank verse, this epic poem tells the story of Aurora Leigh, daughter of an English father and Italian mother, who is orphaned at twelve, raised by her “caged bird” English aunt, and courted by her cousin Romney Leigh, a social reformer who does not believe women can make art. Aurora rejects Romney’s offer and moves to London to pursue a career as a poet.

Their complex story has a subplot involving the destitute Marian Erle, one of Romney’s “projects,” who is trafficked by her abused mother and eventually sold into prostitution in Paris, raped, and driven partly mad. Aurora takes Marian to live with her in Italy, but eventually realizes she loves Romney, who goes blind and comes to acknowledge her poetic achievement. Aurora finally marries him, while Marian dedicates herself to raising her daughter. Along the way, Aurora discusses women’s desires, men’s dominance, and her struggles to make art. Barrett Browning called it

the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered.

Sometime in mid-June, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Samuel Bowles, away in Europe, telling him how she missed him acutely and adding her special, perhaps ghoulish, request:

If you should like to hear the news, we did not die – here – We did not change. We have the Guests we did, except yourself – and the Roses hang on the same stems – as before you went. Vinnie trains the Honeysuckle – and the Robins steal the strings for Nests – quite, quite as they used to – I have the errand from my heart – I might forget to tell it. Would you please to come Home? The long life's years are scant, and fly away, the Bible says, like a told story – and sparing is a solemn thing, somehow, it seems to me – and I grope fast, with my fingers, for all out of my sight I own – to get it nearer -
Should anybody where you go, talk of Mrs. Browning, you must hear for us – and if you touch her Grave, put one hand on the Head for me – her unmentioned Mourner –(L266).

Barrett Browning died on June 30, 1861 in Florence, Italy, her adopted home, where she is buried. A year later, Dickinson still styled herself in mourning for someone especially important to her—so important that she bid Bowles to lay hands upon “the Head” of the grave for her, as if to make concrete (through another of her literary intimates) the deep connection she feels to a poet she has never met but who shaped her sense of what a woman could do.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb, English Cemetery, Florence. 2007
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb, English Cemetery, Florence. 2007

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Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Kirstyn Leuner

Kirstyn LeunerThis week’s post on the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Emily Dickinson invites reflection on how women writers are able to influence each other. It is remarkable that Dickinson knew where Barrett Browning’s grave was located in light of the fact that there were so many women writing at the time, and so few of whom received due notice or critical acclaim. Barrett Browning was exceptional not only for her writing but also for her fame in life and death.

I taught an undergraduate British literature course this Spring that explores what it means to be a canonical woman writer of the long 18th century and how that compares to women who are elsewhere on the continuum between canonical and unknown. For the first half of the term, we read writing by women who are varying shades of well-known, canonical, and at smaller risk of being forgotten, such as Aphra Behn, Mary Collier, and Mary Shelley, who is being celebrated around the globe for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein.

We dedicated the second half of the term to reading and writing about  work by understudied or unknown women authors, like S. Robinson, Esther Barnes, and Maria Grace Saffery. In fact, it was a student, Danna D’Esopo, who discovered that Saffery wrote the last poem we studied in the course, entitled “Cheyt Sing” (1790) though the title page gives no author attribution. We approached these works differently from how we approached Frankenstein, for example, since there is little or no research published specifically on the author or the work to provide context. We read closely as an act of recovery: using front matter, title pages, advertisements, dedications, the text itself, marginalia, and any information about the book we could glean from digital images.

E. Barnes title pageA poem we read together by Esther Barnes called “The Disengaged Fair” (1796) contains a call to gather a vocal tribe of women writers in support women’s independence. The poem begins as a response to a middle-aged widower who placed a single’s ad in a newspaper addressed “to the Disengaged Fair,” seeking a wife “who may wish to give Retirement and Ease the Preference to a single Life.” The gentleman threatens to treat applicants without sufficient virtue “with the Contempt they deserve.” In her poem, Barnes writes back to the gentleman “in Behalf of the Fair Disengag’d” and makes witty demands of her own on the habits and virtue of a prospective husband. Then, she writes to the women she is in solidarity with:

What, barter our liberty, to be a slave,
To a clown or a fop, a fool or a knave;
Consider, good ladies, we can do as we please,
We have no one to vex us, nor no one to teaze.
I think all that makes us poor ladies afraid,
Is that frightful sound, ah! There goes an old maid!
All I now wish is, that the body at large
Would make a petition, and lay down a charge,
That not one in future should ever us call
But Disengag’d Ladies, and that should be all.
And therefore I think we’ll all vow and declare,
That we will be call’d the Disengag’d Fair.
Ought we not to have some badge or some sign,
That we are all maidens, and maidens divine.
I wish that the ladies would now out of hand,
Send up their name, and we’d form a grand band,
And would all marshal forth for the good of the
This I think, that we ladies would stand by our
And trim all those husbands who their wives don’t
To find out our friends will surely be hard,
So we’ll rally our forces, and be on our guard.
And now our whole body declare with our pen,
That we will esteem all worthy good men. (ll. 12-13)

Here, the poet creates her own competing advertisement to the widower’s. As a counterpoint to marriage (a union of the widower and his “disengaged fair”), Barnes wants to create another kind of union: an army of disengaged women, a “grand band” for the cause of maidens, also a pun on a wedding ring. But like the widower, she needs applicants to “send up their name” to her, because it will be hard to “find out our friends.” The disengaged fair, whether they will be future friends in Barnes’s band, or brides, are unknown. They’re out there, but they require a printed advertisement to muster.

Despite its humor, I find the medium of Barnes’s call, through an advertisement in a newspaper mimicking the widower’s personal ad, trivializing. In addition, her inability to name the names of like-minded women writers who might join her suggests how isolated she was from other women writers and how anonymous they were at the time.

At least Dickinson was able to identify Barrett Browning as an author who expressed what it meant to be an independent woman writer and latch onto her for inspiration, even to the point of being able to locate her grave and send someone to “fangirl” there on her behalf. Barnes’s search for compatriot women she admired who were independent-minded when it came to marriage and writing was much harder: she can’t name them, much less know where they are buried. Shows how far women had come by the mid-nineteenth century.

Kirstyn Leuner is Assistant Professor of English at Santa Clara University, where she specializes in British literature of the long eighteenth-century, Digital Humanities (DH), women’s writing, and Romanticism. She is Director of The Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing and at work on a related interdisciplinary monograph. Both projects seek to recover and study Francis Stainforth's 19th-century private library that contained approximately 8,800 volumes of writing produced by women. She has published essays on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Rodolphe Töpffer’s earliest comic strips, markup languages, and book history. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Colorado Boulder and, following this, was Postdoctoral Fellow in the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College.
Visit her research website or on Twitter @KLeuner


Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. Garden City: Doubleday, 1976.

Atlantic Monthly, June 15, 1862

Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862.

Springfield Republican, June 14, 1862

Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 68-79.

Stone, Marjorie. “Lyric Tipplers: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Wine of Cyprus,” Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor,” and the Transatlantic Anacreontic Tradition.” Victorian Poetry 54.2 Summer 2016): 123-154, quoted from The Brownings’ Correspondence, 23 volumes, eds. Philip Kelley et al. Winfield, KS: Wedgestone: 1984–2015, 20: 53.

For information on Barrett Browning, a summary of Aurora Leigh and selected books from the poem, see the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Archive 

For a short account of the Brownings in Dickinson’s life, with a list of further references, see Curtis, Audrey. “Browning Robert (1812-1889) and Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861).” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. Santa Barbara: Greenwood: 2014, 1: 129-33.

On Josiah Holland, see Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work.  New York: Facts on File, 2007, 326.


June 4-10, 1862: Third Letter to Higginson

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

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

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

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

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

But, will you be my Preceptor, Mr Higginson?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Virtues of Cold Water”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am in danger–Sir–”

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

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

She enclosed four poems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

Two Poems

Southwest Corner

pencil enclosed in letter

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

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

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

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

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

+ edifice

webbed burfish


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

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

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

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

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

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.




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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  7, 1862


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

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