November 26-December 2, 1862: Time

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let But a Brilliant Genius Arise”

Springfield Republican, November 29, 1862

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, December 2, 1862

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

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

Harper’s Monthly, November 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Zoë Pollak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Back to Blog Post Menu

November 19-25, 1862: Aftermath

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Skeleton Finger of Want”

Springfield Republican, November 22, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, November 25, 1862

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

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

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

Atlantic Monthly, November 1862

“Wild Apples” by Henry David Thoreau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is nothing to
the Dead -

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Katrina Dzyak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Blog Post Menu

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

Back to Blog Post Menu

September 3-9, 1862: Volcanoes

This week, the Springfield Republican printed a notice in Foreign Affairs about Giuseppe Garibaldi’s revolutionary bid to unify Italy as well as reports of wondrous finds from recent excavations of Pompeii, the city near Naples destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD. From these reports, we take our theme of volcanoes, a revelatory image in Dickinson’s poetry (and one of my favorites!).

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

This week in 1862, the Springfield Republican printed a notice in “Foreign Affairs” about Giuseppe Garibaldi’s revolutionary bid to unify Italy as well as reports of wondrous finds from recent excavations of Pompeii, the city near Naples destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. From these reports, we take our theme of volcanoes, a revelatory image in Dickinson’s poetry (and one of our favorites!). She wrote several startling poems about volcanoes, Vesuvius in particular and its explosive, destructive AND creative power. Volcanoes were also a potent symbol for Emerson, who, as we will see, used them as a figure for the poet and for the

central fire … which animates all men.

Dickinson’s use of the image is much less romanticized, more violent, much more about what is under pressure and subterranean.

Mt Vesuvius eruption
Mt Vesuvius eruption [see a simulation here]

This focus also gives us the opportunity to reprise an exploration of Dickinson’s schooling in science and, in particular, her study of geology through the fascinating works of Edward Hitchcock, a Dickinson family friend and guiding light of the science curriculum at both Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson studied. Hitchcock has been described as

America’s leading advocate of catastrophe-based gap creationism,

in which his provocative theory of volcanoes played a role. To what extent was Dickinson responding, in her use of this potent symbol, to both of these powerful public men whose work she read and appropriated so subversively for her own purposes? Dickinson’s imaginative travel to places like Naples also expresses her fascination with geography, a subject that touches on issues of space and location we explored in last week’s post on “home” and “homelessness.”

“Matters are Now at the Worst”

Springfield Republican, September 6, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“We are again defending Washington behind its fortifications. The rebel armies hold their old line in Virginia, and the difference in the military situation between the present and the past is that larger armies have been massed on both sides, and that the rebels have assumed the offensive and put us on defense. We think matters are now at the worst; that they cannot cross the Potomac; and that our new levies hastening to the seat of war will soon turn the tide and drive back the insolent foe.”

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“The most interesting of the foreign news at present is the movement of Geribaldi in Italy, for the possession of Rome. The Turin government has expressed its disapproval of his course in the strongest terms, and there is danger of a collision between the partisans of the radical leader and the government of Victor Emanuel. Sicily is declared in a state of siege.”

Digital reconstruction of the triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. Image copyright © 2011 and courtesy of James Stanton-Abbott
Digital reconstruction of the triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. Image copyright © 2011 and courtesy of James Stanton-Abbott

Books, Authors and Arts, page 6
“Recent excavations in Pompeii have brought to light a beautiful tridinium [triclinium: formal dining room in private Roman homes of the time containing three couches], with three richly decorated walls and three fine pictures [from the House of Siricus].

Drunken Hercules, Roman, 1st century (fresco). Roman, (1st century AD) / House of Siricus
Drunken Hercules, Roman, 1st century (fresco). Roman, (1st century AD) / House of Siricus

The first of these represents the building of Troy by Neptune and Apollo; the second, a drunken Hercules with numerous cupids, who have disarmed him, and surrounded by several Fauns and Bacchanal; and in the third picture Vulcan shows Thetis the arms of Achilles, among them a shield on which are represented the zodiac, Apollo and the nine muses.”

Hampshire Gazette, September 9, 1862

page 1
“From the three upper classes of Amherst nearly forty have entered the army since the close of summer term. The freshman class in Amherst College numbers fifty-four.”

Marrying Cousins, page 1
“Combining these results [conducted by Dr. Brochard] with those previously presented to the Academy [of Sciences in Paris] by Dr. Bourdin it appears that in marriages within the limits of consanguinity the births of deaf and dumb are in the proportion of 25 to 30 percent. A frightful warning this is to young ladies and gentlemen who have any regard for their posterity not to fall in love with their cousins.”

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Rifle Clubs, page 303
“A sense of the importance of rifle-practice is becoming very generally prevalent. Rifle-clubs are organizing on our country-towns, and target-practice by individuals is increasing to a degree which proves incontestably the interest which is felt in the subject. The chief obstacle to the immediate and extensive practical operation of this interest lies in the difficulty of procuring serviceable guns. We trust that our legislators will perceive the necessity of adopting a strict military organization of all the able-bodied men in the state, and providing them with weapons, with whose use they should be encouraged to make themselves familiar by the institution of public shooting-matches for prizes.”

“Vesuvius – dont talk”

Dickinson’s own education in geology and geography began early with coursework at Amherst Academy, whose curriculum in science was heavily influenced by Edward Hitchcock, a prominent figure in Amherst and an important voice in scientific debates of the day. Hitchcock was a friend of the Dickinson family, a working geologist, a minister who gave up his congregation to become professor of Chemistry and Natural History, then Geology at Amherst College, and finally served as the College’s President from 1845-1854.

In her study of geology, Dickinson used Hitchcock’s book, The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences, a series of lectures the author introduced as aiming to develop “the relations between geology and religion” in order to counteract the many current attacks that argued for their incompatibility. Hitchcock declares at the outset:

I place geology first and most conspicuous on the list, because I know of no other branch of physical science so prolific in its religious applications.

Frontispiece for Edward Hitchcock’s The Religion of Geology (1851). Hand-colored lithograph showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust.” Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, QE22.H67 R25
Frontispiece for Edward Hitchcock’s The Religion of Geology (1851). Hand-colored lithograph showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust.” Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, QE22.H67 R25

The book appeared in 1851 adorned with a frontispiece of a beautiful hand-colored illustration, probably by his wife Orra White Hitchcock, who was herself a distinguished scientific illustrator, showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust” with a volcano erupting off to the side.

As the title of Lecture VI describes, Hitchcock argues that volcanoes are key to the “Geological Proofs of the Divine Benevolence.” Well aware of the “awful sublimity” of volcanic eruptions, he offers an impassioned description of the eruption of Kilauea, “the most remarkable volcano on the globe.” From this, he explains that volcanoes are “safety valves” allowing for the escape of the “vast accumulations of heated and melted matter beneath the earth’s crust” that modern geology has documented. Although outwardly destructive, volcanoes, unlike earthquakes that do far more damage, are, in reality, “essential to the preservation of the globe.” Thus, he reasons, they are a means by which God shows his benevolence because

the evil is permitted that thereby greater good may be secured to the universe. … The desolation of this fair world by volcanic agency, and especially the destruction of life, do, indeed, teach us that this present system of nature is adapted to a state of probation and death, instead of a state of rewards and immortal life. … we have strong reason to believe they are essential to the preservation of the globe … If we can only rise to these higher views, and not suffer our judgement to be warped by the immediate terrors of the earthquake and the volcano, we shall see the smile of infinite benevolence where most men see only the wrath of an offended Deity.

Volcanoes held an important but more metaphorical meaning for Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, in his famous lecture “The American Scholar,” declared:

The human mind … is one central fire, which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and, now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples. It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.

More pointedly, in his essay, “The Poet,” which we know Dickinson read, Emerson compared his Romantic vision of the poet as a “liberating god” standing out from  ordinary humankind to “Chimborazo,” a stratovolcano in present-day Ecuador that begins in the equatorial jungle and rises up through all the climatic zones to be crowned with snow and glaciers more than 6,000 feet above sea level.

Kamilla Denman calls Emerson’s volcano an “image of benevolent spiritual enlightenment,” a description that also covers Hitchcock’s more doctrinally Christian view. They have appropriated their volcanoes, though admittedly sublime and awful, as images of compassion and generosity. By contrast, Dickinson’s volcanoes, Denman argues, are “a far more violent force, an image of devastating linguistic expression erupting out of silence,” and she quotes this astounding passage from the Third Master Letter, which is dated sometime in 1862:

Vesuvius dont talk — Etna — dont — one of them — said a syllable — a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever —  (L 233).

Plaster casts of PompeiiArguing from a psychological perspective, Chloe Marnin finds that “volcanoes illustrate the repression, eruption, and aftermath of human emotion” in Dickinson’s poems, and points out that her particular interest in Vesuvius might have been kindled by the recent reports of excavations, like the one in this week’s Republican. Although it was early in this process, by 1860 Giuseppe Fiorelli took over directing the excavations at Pompeii and instituted new and better systems of recovery. By this time, much of the western part of Pompeii had been excavated. Fiorelli also began the process of pumping plaster into the cavities left by victims’ bodies to produce the uncanny casts of their struggles.

Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840
Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840 "Mt. Vesuvius." Grosvenor Prints

Dickinson also may have been aware of another popular entertainment that features volcanoes. In the 1840s, Mr. Spooner, a London-based printer, began making what he called “Spooner's Protean Views,” hand-painted 9" x 11" cards that showed one view but when held up to strong light or used with the early “magic lantern” device called the Polyrama Panoptique, completely changed the view. The views of Mt. Vesuvius were among the most dramatic and most popular.

Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840
Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840 "Mt. Vesuvius Erupting." Grosvenor Prints

In her now-famous essay of 1976, poet Adrienne Rich performed an important re-vision of Dickinson, reimagining the “Belle of Amherst” not as a jilted lover but as “Vesuvius at Home”— that is, a woman of explosive, ungovernable powers, feeling herself possessed by a volatile daemon or demon. In the 19th century, Rich argued, such a woman who felt this way “has need of a mask, at least, of innocuousness and of containment.” One of these masks was the “reticent volcano,” and it expressed in her mind Dickinson’s extreme “ambivalence toward power.”

Some readers are now re-assessing Rich’s essay in contemporary terms, as  Renée Bergland, our guest respondent for this week, describes in her reflection. Still, Rich's revision gave many of us permission NOT to read Dickinson in the limiting context of romance and men but in terms of her own powerful creativity. In the poems for this week, we will explore just how Dickinson re-purposed the volcano image used by two very prominent male thinkers in her world.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Renée Bergland

In the trail of that genius my mind has been moving, and with its language and images my mind still has to reckon.


Adrienne Rich wrote these words about Emily Dickinson, but for me, they also describe Rich.

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

Rich’s essays are very moving to me. I love tracing out her emerging thinking across the decades—the change from her first steps away from an absolutist stance in “Poetry and Experience” (1964) to the feminist possibilities of “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision” (1971) and “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” (1976), and then, later, the more intersectional, anti-racist feminist awareness of “Notes toward a Politics of Location” (1984). Reading these essays as a Dickinson scholar, I see that Rich continued to reckon with Dickinson as her own poetics and politics changed and evolved.

I have been thinking about Adrienne Rich’s “Vesuvius at Home” quite a bit this year. I had the chance to talk it over with a group of Dickinsonians at the EDIS Summer gathering in Amherst in early August. Although the EDIS seminar discussion was the high point, I’d started gathering the materials in January, and I have continued to reflect on them since our meeting. One of the things that particularly interested me as I gathered the materials for the seminar was that there was surprisingly little crossover between Dickinson scholarship and Rich scholarship. Vivian Pollak’s wonderful book, Our Emily Dickinsons, published in 2016, describes “Vesuvius at Home” as “an essay which deeply influenced me and many of my friends” (13), but she only devotes a page or two to Rich, and she deftly rebuts Rich’s portrait of Dickinson as a proudly isolated volcano by citing “How happy is the little Stone” (F 1570), a poem that values “interdependency, complexity, and vulnerability” (14).

In our seminar discussion, we looked at a few recent essays about Rich, and tried to make connections to Dickinson’s poetry. We considered an essay by Miriam Marty Clark that traced Rich’s movement from identity to affiliation, another by Jeffrey Neilson that framed Rich in the context of postsecular feminism, and a third by Christian Haines that argued for an impersonal feminism, “gesturing toward a historical transformation that has rendered the borders between the personal/private and the impersonal/public extremely tenuous” (182). These scholars all describe Rich’s thinking in twenty-first century ways—as affiliative, postsecular, preindividual—that are hard to square with the way that “Vesuvius at Home” celebrates Dickinson as autonomous, secular, and individualist.

What I enjoy the most about Dickinson’s work is that it often brings together seemingly contradictory possibilities. I love thinking about the Dickinson whom Rich celebrates for being dangerous, aggressive, even destructive, alongside the affiliative, postsecular, preindividual version of Dickinson, who wrote about “Boundaries – forgot — ” in “The Spider holds a Silver Ball” (F 513), as well as volcanoes. When I read “On my volcano grows the grass” (F 1743), my reading is shaped by Rich’s description of the destructive power of the volcano, but it is also shaped by another idea—of the volcano as a place warm enough to melt the hardest little stones—a place more wondrous than destructive, more mysteriously, embracingly, passionately fluid than angry.

Dickinson’s volcano continues to “populate with awe my solitude” (as the last line of that poem would put it). A solitude populated with awe may not be solitary at all. To give Rich the last word, I’ll conclude with another line from “Vesuvius at Home:”

There are many more Emily Dickinsons than I have tried to call up here. Wherever you take hold of her, she proliferates.


Clark, Miriam Marty. “Human Rights and the Work of Lyric in Adrienne Rich.” The Cambridge Quarterly 38,  1 (2009) pp. 45-65.

Haines, Christian P. “The Impersonal is Political: Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, Feminism, and the Art of Biopolitics.” Cultural Critique 96 (2017) pp. 178-215.

Neilson, Jeffrey. “‘No Poetry Will Serve’: The Cruel Optimism of Adrienne Rich’s Last Poems.” Genre  49,  3 (December 2016) pp. 331-357.

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


Moore, Randy, Mark Decker and Sehoya Cotner. Chronology of the Evolution-creationism Controversy. Greenwood Press, 2010, 99.

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 9, 1862

Springfield Republican, September 6, 1862


Andrew. “Spooner's Protean Views.” Magic Lantern World: Projected images from the 1640s to the present day. (Thanks to Renée Bergland for this source.)

Denman, Kamilla. “Emily Dickinson's Volcanic Punctuation.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 2, 1, Spring 1993: 22-46, 22.

Dobson, Joanne. Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 107ff.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.Complete Works.

Hitchcock, Edward. The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1854 1, 196-97, 204ff.

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

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

Back to Blog Post Menu

July 16-22, 1862: Circumference

In her fourth letter to Higginson, written sometime in July 1862, Dickinson declared “My Business is Circumference.” This week, we explore just what this “business” of “circumference” is and means in Dickinson’s poetry and letters, and examine Dickinson’s fourth letter to Higginson, its signal disclosures, and her growing relationship to this crucial correspondent.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ewa Chrusciel

""“My Business is Circumference”

Sometime in July 1862, Dickinson wrote her fourth letter (L268) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which includes several notable revelations. Such as her quirky description of herself, in the absence of a portrait Higginson asked her to send, and her statement of an important principle of her poetic practice, which people who read the poems for biographical hints ignore:

When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse – it does not mean – me – but a supposed person.

Most importantly, in the middle of a long paragraph in which Dickinson invokes surgeons setting broken bones, calls Higginson “Preceptor,” and promises him “Obedience,” she asserts rather curtly:

Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that – My business is circumference.

Startling in its assurance, this declaration is an expression of Dickinson’s poetics.

This week, we will explore just what this “business” of “circumference” is and means in Dickinson’s poetry and letters. Originally a term from geometry, circumference is an idiosyncratic and paradoxical concept Dickinson invokes in many of her most challenging poems. A figure of both enlargement and limitation, circumference is a foundation for knowledge, language, and experience of the divine.

Scholars have considered circumference in relation to the Transcendental and Romantic sublime, Christian mysticism, feminine mythology and archetypal psychology, existential theology, the rhetorical figure of catachresis, and as part of Dickinson’s terrestrial and geographical imaginary. In the process, we will examine Dickinson’s fourth letter to Higginson, its signal disclosures, and her growing relationship to this crucial correspondent.

“The Greatest, Wisest and Meanest of Nationkind”

Springfield Republican, July 19, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“There has been no new movement by Gen. McClellan’s army during the week, but all the accounts from the James River indicate that the offence which succeeded the week of battles is soon to be broken. What the plan of attack may be is not yet developed, but it is evident that the fleet is to play an important part in the grand movement.”

The General Situation, page 1
“There is no doubt that the strength of the government and the country has been to some extent neutralized by political discussion. War has been made on our generals because of their party politics, and the public mind has been distracted by irrelevant questions, to the neglect of what should have the whole attention and energy of the people.”

A Summer in Europe, page 2 [from Samuel Bowles]
“These excursions through England and her adjacencies and this residence in her capital of course yield abundant material for more descriptions and comments and criticisms. Perhaps I may sum up England with the sarcasm of Macauley, or Sidney Smith, or somebody else, or her greatest philosopher and statesman (Lord Bacon), and say she is at once the greatest, wisest and meanest of nationkind.”

Original Poetry
“Homeless” by Adelaide A. Proctor (excerpt), page 6

Nay; — goods in our thrifty England
Are not left to lie and grow rotten
For each man knows the market value
Of silk or woolen or cotton.
But in counting the riches of England
I think our Poor are forgotten.

Books, Authors and Art, page 7

""“A recent reviewer says of Mrs. Stowe that her descriptions of negro life and character have never been surpassed. This is high praise, but scarcely deserved. The very redundancy of her genius, more creative than imitative, leads her to make of her prominent characters the mouth-pieces to utter her own rich thoughts. She has seized upon the externals of the colored race, picturesque in their misery, and breathed though them a vitality not wholly African, but bearing many traces of Anglo-Saxon origin.”

Hampshire Gazette, July 22, 1862

page 2
“An important war bill has been passed by Congress. It gives the President powers to call out the militia in sufficient numbers to crush out the rebellion at once.”

“You Must Banish Me”

In his account of Dickinson’s letters to Higginson, Jason Hoppe argues:

It is in her fourth letter to him that Dickinson appears finally to accept whatever assent Higginson has voiced to her proposal, pronouncing that if he really does “truly consent,” she will be “happy to be [his] scholar, and will deserve the kindness, [she] cannot repay” (L 268).

Although we cannot know for sure, in the absence of his responses, it appears that Higginson has been reading the poems Dickinson encloses in her letters and critiquing them—that is, he is acting like her “Preceptor” in the literary art of poetry. However, it is interesting to note that in this letter, as in earlier letters, Dickinson describes this tutelage in melodramatic terms of curing her illness or performing “surgery” and setting her fractured bones. Her pledge of “Obedience” to Higginson also seems overblown, since in the very next sentences, Dickinson tells him, in no uncertain terms, what her “Business” is — “Circumference.” As if startled by her own boldness, she then acknowledges that he has “business” too, and offers him a release clause, which has a whiff of masochism about it:

Because you have much business, beside the growth of me – you will appoint, yourself, how often I shall come – without your inconvenience. And if at any time– you regret you received me, or I prove a different fabric to that you supposed – you must banish me.

Theirs is an intricate minuet of need, power, and recognition. Thus, it is not surprising that Dickinson would announce her central occupation of Circumference to this eminent literary figure. Around the same time, in the summer of 1862, Dickinson wrote to her friends, Elizabeth and Josiah Holland, in similar though more conventional terms:

Perhaps you laugh at me! … My business is to love.

And later in the same letter, in the voice of a bird,

My business is to sing (L269; see the post on this letter).

Josiah Holland was also a well-known literary editor and writer, but an intimate and friend, not a “Preceptor,” not someone Dickinson necessarily saw in the role of mentor.

And Circumference is a more elusive, even ambitious, occupation than loving or singing, which were the expected province of “poetesses” of the time. Dickinson’s Webster’s lists three definitions of the word, all of which refer to or quote from the work of epic poet John Milton, giving it quite a bit of gravitas:

1. The line that bounds a circle; the exterior line of a circular body; the whole exterior surface of a round body; a periphery. – Newton. Milton.
2. The space included in a circle. – Milton. Dryden.
3. An orb; a circle; any thing circular or orbicular; as in Milton, speaking of a shield, The broad circumference / Hung on his shoulders like the moon.

The word appears in 17 poems throughout Dickinson’s canon, but the notion of Circumference and its attendant ideas—circuit, periphery, limitation, boundary, circles (crowns), arcs (diadems, crescents), transcendence—permeate many more. The word also appears in six letters: in Letter 269 from 1862, mentioned above, a year of intense productivity for Dickinson, and then much later in a letter in 1881 and four in 1884, two years before her death.


Ewa Chrusciel

""When Emily Dickinson sent her poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson – a writer for Atlantic Monthly – she asked whether her verse was alive.

What does the semblance of felt life have to do with Dickinson’s “circumference”? Could Dickinson’s desire for her verses to be alive also have something to do with circumference? Furthermore, what does circumference have to do with the human mind, processes of thinking, and an epiphany?

The poem “A Coffin – is a Small Domain” (F890B, J943), dated to 1864 and so not included in the poems for this week, will help us lay the foundation of circumference, as defined in relation to other containers.

A Coffin – is a small
Yet able to contain
A Citizen of Paradise
In it's diminished Plane –

A Grave – is  a restricted
Breadth –
Yet ampler than the Sun –
And all the Seas
He populates –
And Lands He looks opon

To Him who on it's
 small Repose
Bestows a single Friend –
Circumference without Relief –
Or Estimate – or End –

As the poem progresses with a rising gradation of bounded spaces, the unbounded spaces also keep expanding. A coffin and grave seem to be in almost a binary juxtaposition to Circumference and Relief. Geometrically speaking, we have rectangular shapes juxtaposed with circular spaces and out of this juxtaposition the new dimension emerges – the third space of circumference.

Circumference is always in motion, ever expanding. This state of ever expanding in Dickinson’s poetry is indispensable to liberation from static containers. In a sense, circumference becomes a container for eternity in time and infinity in space.

Liberation from static and bounded containers requires undertaking a journey. LIFE AS A JOURNEY is one of the most basic conceptual metaphors. However, Dickinson goes beyond a linear progression, which a standard journey would imply. For her, a voyage becomes not earth-bound, but boundless in outer space of circumference. As cognitive scholar Margaret Freeman suggests, Dickinson restructured a linear and temporal journey into a circular, spatial one. Freeman writes,

in a cyclical universe, the geographical metaphors of goal, location as up or end have no physical, bodily grounding, with the consequence that it no longer makes sense to speak of “destination after” death.

Here is my pictorial representation of the container metaphors in “A Coffin — is a small Domain:”

""To borrow a bit from cognitive linguistics, we could claim that the circumference is located at the periphery of our view.

""The circumference is presented in this picture on a periphery. It is consistent with one of the definitions included in Webster’s Dictionary: a periphery. Visually, it also resembles an arc, which is also congruent with the definition in Dickinson’s Lexicon in reference to “A Coffin — is a small Domain:”

Infinite lines, planes, degrees, arcs, angles, diameters, projections, intersections and repetitions of circles; [fig.] the infinite dimensions of life, reality, existence.

Conceptually, it can also be associated with a rainbow and the Biblical promise of resurrection and eternal life.

In my understanding, circumference is an epiphany, because it is never static or stable, an always emergent and incipient third space. The epiphany is alive. Perhaps such circumferential progression inward signifies the fourth dimension, a concept discussed by H.G. Wells and explored by Picasso and Braque in their cubist paintings, which restructures the linear and temporal movement into a circular and spatial orientation.

In order to attain such an epiphanic and circumferential state, one has to abandon his/her daily orbit of vision and enter

an orbit coterminous with longing,

as Seamus Heaney says in his poem “Wheels Within Wheels.” Perhaps this intuitive comprehension, or in other words, tacit knowing has some ties with Dickinson’s understanding of circumference and epiphanic cognition. I would venture to say, however, that Dickinson’s notion of epiphany anticipated modern epiphany, which relies on image rather than vision. It also anticipated the modern imagination, what Wallace Stevens calls

the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.


Freeman, Margaret. "Metaphor Making Meaning: Dickinson’s Conceptual Universe. " Journal of Pragmatics 24, 6 (December 1995): 643-666.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1990, 136.

bio: EWA CHRUSCIEL is a bilingual poet and a translator, born in Poland. Her three books in English are Of Annunciations (Omnidawn Press, 2017), Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn Press, 2014) and Strata (2011). She has also published three books in Polish: Tobo ek (2016), Sopi ki (2009), Furkot (2001). She is an associate professor of creative writing and poetry at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.



Hampshire Gazette, July 22, 1862

Springfield Republican, July 19, 1862


Hoppe, Jason. “Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual
Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth
Higginson, 1862-1886.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 55. 3 (Fall 2013): 348-38, 359-60.

Back to Blog Post Menu

July 9-15, 1862: Astronomy

This week, we take our cue from the Springfield Republican for July 13, 1862, which reported the sighting in New England of what would eventually be called the Comet Swift–Tuttle, to explore why Dickinson turned often to astronomy and found it so hospitable to her metaphorical imagination.

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

“Comet Swift-Tuttle”


This week, we take our cue from the Springfield Republican for July 13, 1862, which reported the sighting in New England of what would eventually be called the Comet Swift–Tuttle. A ball of ice, dust, and debris with a nucleus is 16 miles wide, this comet is notable because, though it only passes by Earth every 133 years, its constituent debris creates the Perseid meteor shower every year when Earth moves through the trail of its orbit. This spectacular display was first seen in 1862, a particularly active year for comets.

Two astronomers discovered this comet independently in the following week: Lewis Swift on July 16, 1862 and Horace Parnell Tuttle on July 19, 1862. These kinds of astronomical discoveries were big news in the nineteenth century, which was a period of enormous expansion and growing popularity of the field of astronomy. Developments in optical technology led to advancements in telescopes and photography and were abetted by new concepts about the origins of the universe, the speed of light, and expanded ability to do calculations. The nineteenth century saw the discovery of 36 asteroids, four satellites, a planet—Neptune, a new ring around Saturn, and several comets, including the Swift-Tuttle comet.

Although Dickinson does not mention this sighting, biographer Richard Sewall notes how frequently Dickinson uses astronomical language, references, and motifs in her writing. We know Dickinson studied astronomy as one of her subjects at both Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the 1840s. She not only mentions planets, heavenly bodies, and constellations in her writing but knowledgeably references astronomical phenomena like eclipses, angular measurement, and solstices. Scholars who study these references find that Dickinson had a deep engagement with astronomy and that her very conception of poetry is astronomical: Brad Ricca claims that

Dickinson uses poetry as a sextant,

an instrument for celestial navigation that measures the angular distance between an astronomical object and the horizon. This means of finding one’s way or connecting two points “slantwise” conforms to Dickinson’s recommendation to “Tell all the truth/ but tell it slant” (F 1263A, J1129) .

This week, we explore why Dickinson turned often to astronomy and found it so hospitable to her metaphorical imagination. One explanation is that the “new sciences” of this period were radically challenging older conceptions of the world and Dickinson wanted to participate in these exhilarating new ideas. Specifically, Dickinson’s engagement with astronomy occurred at the moment of a decisive shift away from religious explanations of science. Astronomy allowed her to focus on the universe, on perception and cognition, and explore the limits of scientific knowledge. It would also have a staggering personal effect on members of her family.

“The Waning of the Comet”

Springfield Republican, July 13, 1862

Review of the Week, page 1
“Doubt and hesitation are at an end. Congress, the executive, the patriot army and the people are ready, and the first crash of the grand onset which is to overwhelm the gigantic and infamous rebellion of 1861 now begins.”

The Waning of the Comet, page 2
“The comet that flashed so suddenly upon our vision a week and a half ago, is now visibly seen on the wane, and will soon be out of sight, lost among the constellations of the north. It has been in view just long enough to convince the astronomers that their knowledge is not infallible, and to furnish fireworks for the millions on the evening of the 4th, and now it leaves as suddenly as it came. It seems smaller and less bright from night to night, and it will soon be invisible to the naked eye. Then it will rapidly fade from the sight of the telescope, and be gone, probably never again to be seen by this generation.”

Great Battle in Missouri Recalled, page 4
“On the morning of the 5th, [1861] Col. Siegel attacked a body of 6,000 rebels about seven miles east of Carthage on a prairie. Col. Siegel began the attack at 9:30 a.m., breaking the enemy’s center twice. After an hour and a half of fighting, he silenced their artillery.”

Literary Anniversaries: Amherst College, page 5
“Notwithstanding the absence of strangers and the presence of the heat, a large and intelligent audience assembled in the village church Sunday afternoon to listen to the Baccalaureate Sermon by President Stearns, founded on Revelations XXI:7— ”He that overcometh shall inherit all things.’”

Hampshire Gazette, July 15, 1862


Amherst, page 3
“In the afternoon of Wednesday, Henry Ward Beecher addressed the literary societies. He said it might be expected, perhaps, that he would choose a literary subject, but we are so near the edge of revolution that public questions must take the precedence.”

“Astronomy  is a Science which has, in all Ages, Engaged the Attention of the Poet, the Philosopher, and the Divine”

As mentioned in the Overview, astronomy became increasing popular during the nineteenth century but also experienced a decisive shift. It was a subject on the curriculum at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary when Dickinson studied there in the 1840s. The Dickinson family library included several books about astronomy, including Felix Eberty’s Stars and the Earth (1854) and Denison Olmsted’s Introduction to Astronomy (1861). Eleanor Heginbotham notes that Elijah H. Burritts Geography of the Heavens and Class Book of Astronomy (1838), a textbook used at  Amherst Academy, linked the study of astronomy directly to Dickinson’s art. Burritt announced:

Astronomy is a science which has, in all ages, engaged the attention of the poet, the philosopher, and the divine.


Astronomy also became a field in which women could and did excel. In 1839, William Mitchell and his daughter Maria observed Halley’s comet from their observatory on Nantucket, off Cape Cod. In 1847, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet on her own, which was named for her, and received a medal for her discovery from King Frederick VI of Denmark, which earned her international recognition and gave needed status to American astronomy. Mitchel was the first woman to be a professional astronomer. She was appointed professor of astronomy at Vassar College, director of the Vassar College Observatory and, with much fanfare, became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848.

""Dickinson’s exposure to astronomy was largely thanks to Edward Hitchcock, Professor of Geology and Theology at Amherst College and author of The Religion of Geology (1851), a book also  in the Dickinson family library. An eminent “geological theologian,” as he called himself, Hitchcock influenced the curriculum at both schools Dickinson attended. Although Hitchcock avidly embraced new scientific discoveries and encouraged an attitude of wonder, he supported the position, prevalent in the early part of the century, that sciences like astronomy and geology confirmed the existence of God and were compatible with Christian theology.

At Mount Holyoke Seminary, Dickinson used the textbook Compendium of Astronomy (1839) by Olmsted, which supported such a view. But after the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species, which was reviewed favorably by Asa Gray in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860, scientific discoveries began to have a destabilizing effect on religious belief and signaled the beginning of a decisive shift away from a teleological trend in scientific thought. Joan Kirkby notes:

Between 1859 and 1873, New England was “the main battle-ground” of the confrontation between science and theology. … Emily Dickinson herself was imbricated in a unique web of affiliation with Darwin and darwinian ideas; the key New England figures in this debate were all known to Dickinson either through her family, her schooling, her library or the libraries at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke, or through the pages of the New England periodicals to which the Dickinsons subscribed.

Dickinson, too, was swept up in the excitement about the changing view of the world, though Sabine Sielke argues that Dickinson’s

take on science is critical and engaged rather than positivist and affirmative.


While astronomy was an important element in Dickinson’s intellectual world, we could also argue that it had a devastating effect on Dickinson’s family. One of the consequences of astronomy’s increasing popularity was the building of observatories; more than 170 were built across the country in the nineteenth century. This included the Lawrence Observatory at Amherst College, built in 1847. The addition of a larger telescope in 1854 helped the Lawrence Observatory to build a reputation for innovation. And this reputation attracted more students, which required more faculty.


In 1881, a young academic named David Peck Todd was hired as an assistant Professor of Astronomy at Amherst College and brought along his young wife, Mabel Loomis Todd. Mabel assisted David with his work, traveling with him to Japan to see a total eclipse in August 1896 and writing a book about it titled Corona and Coronet. Her importance to this story lies in her affair during the 1880’s with Austin Dickinson, many years her senior, which led to the bitter divide between the Dickinson families that would prevent the publication of a “complete works” until Thomas Johnson’s edition in 1955. In 1890, Mabel began co-editing Dickinson’s poetry, with Thomas Higginson. The same year Mabel brought out a collection of Dickinson’s letters, she published Total Eclipses of the Sun, a survey of the history, science and characteristics of eclipses with a poetic epigraph from Dickinson (included in our poems for this week).

Ivy Schweitzer


Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750—1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster   
a monster in the shape of a woman   
the skies are full of them
a woman      ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments   
or measuring the ground with poles’
in her 98 years to discover   
8 comets
she whom the moon ruled   
like us
levitating into the night sky   
riding the polished lenses
Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness   
ribs chilled   
in those spaces    of the mind
An eye,
          ‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
          from the mad webs of Uranusborg
                                                            encountering the NOVA   
every impulse of light exploding
from the core
as life flies out of us
             Tycho whispering at last
             ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’
What we see, we see   
and seeing is changing
the light that shrivels a mountain   
and leaves a man alive
Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body
The radio impulse   
pouring in from Taurus
         I am bombarded yet         I stand
I have been standing all my life in the   
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most   
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep      so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15   
years to travel through me       And has   
taken      I am an instrument in the shape   
of a woman trying to translate pulsations   
into images    for the relief of the body   
and the reconstruction of the mind.
Adrienne Rich, "Planetarium"  from Collected Poems: 1950-2012. Copyright © 2016 by The Adrienne Rich Literary Trust.  Copyright © 1971 W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc..
Source: The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2002)
""Since I first read this poem, in the early 1970s, it has moved me profoundly, moved me to tears I could not totally account for, until today. I understood  back then, during the second wave of feminist movements, that Rich was borrowing the language of astronomy and alluding to the extraordinary life of the first woman professional astronomer, who had to get out from her brother's shadow, to describe her 20th century sense of constraint as a woman with ambitions, as a woman who appeared monstrous to her culture because of those ambitions. It’s the monstrosity, being punished, disfigured, constellated for embodying  power, that choked me up. As a brainy girl growing up in the 1960s, I identified with it on a visceral level.

Dickinson’s engagement with astronomy came as a complete surprise to me. Yes, she wrote about moons, stars, eclipses, Pleiades, but it is her excitement about astronomy, how it opens up the cosmos, acts as a lens to an infinite world linking the heavens and Heaven, and, perhaps most importantly, how it puts the human female eye/I at the center of perception … I hadn't grasped how powerful that was for Dickinson, stargazing late into the night from her bedroom window, orchard, or garden, communing with the universe—one can almost see how her “father's grounds,” which in the 1860s she claimed to never leave, might be sufficient given such a penetrating means of scrutiny. For her, the Astronomer’s obsessive searching “for his Pleiad's face,” such an intimate turn of phrase, represents the unending commitment to process, to searching and desire, to life itself.
From studying Dickinson’s engagement with astronomy, I now see that Rich gets the deeper point:
What we see, we see / and seeing is changing …
The masculine dominance of the ocular — seeing as dominating and dominating the gaze — has always been an issue for women and others. Rich’s speaker stands “in the direct path of a battery of signals” that are “untranslatable” but impossible to miss (monstrosity), and from that pommeling and bombardment she becomes “a galactic cloud so deep     so involuted“ that the wound is invaginated and blossoms into strength. It turns her into “an instrument,” like the sextants and telescopes of Caroline Herschel and Maria Mitchell, but now, for relief and reconstruction: the monster will resolve into a thinking woman.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is Professor of English and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College, and the editor of White Heat.


Ricca, Brad. “Emily Dickinson: Learn’d Astronomer.” Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 (Fall 2000): 96-109, 103.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 354.

Sielke, Sabine. “Natural Sciences.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 236-245.

Williams, Sharone E. “Astronomy.” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. 2 vols. Santa Barbara: Greenwood: 2014, 55-59.

Hampshire Gazette
, July 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 13, 1862


Heginbotham, Eleanor. “Reading in the Dickinson Libraries.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 25-35 29.

Kirkby, Joan. “[W]e thought Darwin had thrown ‘the Redeemer’ away": Darwinizing with Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Journal 19,  1, 2010: 1-29, 7.

Sielke, Sabine. “Natural Sciences.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 236-245, 237.

"Why an Eclipse Can Only Last Eight Minutes, by Mabel Loomis Todd." New England Historical Society.

Williams, Sharone E. “Astronomy.” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. 2 vols. Santa Barbara: Greenwood: 2014, 55-59.

May 14-20, 1862: Hot Beds

This week, we reprise the theme of gardens, which we began at the beginning of the month, but in a different mood. We take our cue from the second batch of essays written by students in Melissa Zeiger’s Spring 2018 course at Dartmouth College that explore the effects of moving away from an anthropocentric understanding of nature to a landscape that is active in its own right.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Melissa Zeiger

“Hot Beds ”

This week, we reprise the theme of gardens, which we began at the beginning of the month, but in a different mood. New England is burgeoning, but there is trouble in paradise. We take our cue from the second batch of essays written by students in Melissa Zeiger’s Spring 2018 course at Dartmouth College entitled “Garden Politics: Literature, Theory, Practice.” This group of papers explores the effects of moving away from an anthropocentric understanding of nature to a landscape that is active in its own right. Students read a cluster of Dickinson poems presented in the poems section that includes one of her most striking poems, “Four Trees – upon a solitary Acre.” What happens when God becomes–simply–a “neighbor,” and concepts like “Providence,” which undergird a Christian/religious set of beliefs, and any idea of human control over nature are called into question?

treeIn our visit to Meli’s class, we talked about Dickinson’s gardens in particular, and how her representations of plants and the denizens of nature like birds, bees and butterflies, are shockingly radical, even for her time, in which prominent scientists advanced theories of plant sentience that help to topple humans from their pedestal of species dominance. We referred to the work of Mary Kuhn, summarized in the post for April 30-May 6, who argues that

Dickinson finds in the plant realm another possibility: life whose very nature is collaborative, decentralized, and communicative with other environmental agents in ways that human actors cannot anticipate or control.

These might be welcomed models for humans, but no one willingly gives up “the neat rhetoric of cultivation and human control.”

Though these thoughts are sobering, we all still have some things very much in common. In the class on “Garden Politics,” we explored the poem “I taste a liquor never brewed” (F207B, J214), discussed in the first post on gardens. Below is an imaginative rendition of the moment in that poem “When Butterflies renounce their ‘drams’–” by Anna Reed, a student in the class.WhenButterflies


“Gardens are being made”


Springfield Republican, Saturday May 17, 1862

Review of the Week. Progress of the War, page 1

There is no pause in the march of events. If they do not keep pace with popular impatience, they at least fulfill reasonable expectation. Norfolk has been abandoned by the rebels, being untenable after the retreat from Yorktown peninsula, and is now occupied by our troops. The Merrimac was blown up by the rebels, and the navy yard destroyed. But Norfolk was spared from destruction, and Suffolk has since been occupied by our advancing forces. Gen McClellan was still moving towards Richmond, at last accounts, as is probably in possession of the rebel capital by this time. … there are good reports of growing Unionism at the South, and in all respects the military and political situation is rapidly improving. We see the end of the great peril.

Foreign Affairs

The rumor that France and England are going to interfere to stop the war in the United States is again started, and repeated by every arrival from Europe. But this report can hardly excite much apprehension or command much credit at this late day. The time for European intervention has passed forever.

New England Matters. 

The most remarkable feature of the week … is the terrible conflagrations that have raged, extending from Troy and Long Island, on the borders of New England, to Boston and the rural villages of Maine, and devastating large tracts of woodland. … The shad fisheries are in successful operation, gardens are being made, vegetation is rapidly advancing, the fruit trees blossom liberally, the birds sing sweetly, the sunshine is warm enough for summer, and the moonlight charming beyond description; so we may consider the vernal season as fully inaugurated.

Rose and Grape Culture, page 2

A choice coterie of ladies and gentlemen, under the auspices of the Hampden Horticultural Society, anticipated the season somewhat, Friday evening, by discussing, in this city, topics of bloom and fruitage.

Civil War Nurses


“The Style of Women for Army Nurses,” page 5

“Not every tender-hearted and patriotic girl is fit for a nurse in an army hospital. An Illinois surgeon at Pittsburg Landing writes:–”

The duties required of an effective nurse are not the administering a spoonful of wine, nor bathing an officer's temples with a sponge. … but combing matting hair, washing dirty faces, hands and feet, binding putrid wounds, and numbers of things which cannot be described. The lady who cannot, with a smiling face, roll up her sleeves, go on her knees amongst the black boilers and wet straw to wait upon an unfortunate private soldier, repulsive in his manners and words, is here sadly out of her proper sphere. It is a noble sight to witness one who bears the impress of nature’s nobility in every movement and every expression, a highly educated lady, accustomed to every indulgence that wealth can furnish, thus employed, with disordered hair, hoopless, in a soiled calico dress, bespattered with blood, coal smut and grease, forgetful of every feeling but the one of seeking and helping the most wretched and neglected. … Send us ladies of this caliber, or send us negro servants.

“Books, Authors and Art.” page 7

Has a long and very positive review of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s serial novel, now in book form, Agnes of Sorrento:

And now that we review it collectively, we are more and more convinced that the work is not a novel but a poem. Its frequent passages of marvelous descriptive beauty are bathed in poetry as flowers are bathed in dew. Its very plot is laid in dreamland and not in the actual world … Indeed, that [central] romance discloses itself as an allegory, typical of the highest truths … Viewed in this light, we can safely place the book in the hands of our questioning daughters …

Hampshire Gazette, May 20, 1862.
Leads off with a poem, “Bury me in the Morning by Mrs. Hall,” a ballad in 12 line stanzas and loose meter rhyming abacadaeabac. It is an affecting poem spoken in the voice of a dying child to its mother, which can certainly represent the growing number of young men dying in the war. It was set to music by A. C. Farnham in sheet music published in St. Louis 1855, with the lyricist recorded as “S. C. Hale.”

Another poem graces the front page, column 3:

The following humorous description of their Bill of Fare, was composed by the prisoners taken at Bull Run, while imprisoned in Richmond, and brought home by Philander A. Streeter of the 2d Vermont Regiment, he being held there five months and fourteen days.

It is in rhyming couplets and quite hilarious. At its conclusion is a column titled “Literary” that reports the publication of The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, Part 16 of the record of the Rebellion, a diary with photographs and “many important documents,” edited by Frank Moore and published by G. P. Putnam, New York. Also,

Blackwood’s Magazine, for April has its usual spiteful, prejudiced and provoking article on American affairs, but its other papers are of unusual attractiveness.

Includes notices about George Eliot and Mrs. Browning’s poems.

A short piece by “Louise S.” on “How to Avoid a Bad Husband,” which begins: “Never marry for wealth. A woman’s life consisteth not in these things that she possesseth.”

News from Amherst:

The four members of the sophomore class in Amherst College, who disgraced themselves by “rowing” a freshman a few days since, having been removed from the college, the freshmen have unanimously pledged themselves not to “row” or “haze” the next class.

“The Heart Wants What it Wants”

In our post from two weeks ago, we quoted a letter Dickinson wrote in early May to Mary Bowles, wife of the editor Samuel Bowles, who was abroad at the time (L262). Her first line discloses how highly she valued Samuel’s friendship:

When the Best is gone – I know that other things are not of consequence – The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care– … Not to see what we love, is very terrible – and talking – doesn’t ease it – nothing does – but just itself. … I often wonder how the love of Christ, is done – when that – below – holds – so –

How do we love God, Dickinson questions, when our earthly loves are so powerful? She then suggests anodynes for the “pain” of separation:  hoping the Bowles’ little boy “coos away the pain – Perhaps your flowers, help – some­–.” It is revealing that Dickinson offers flowers and gardening as possible modes of alleviating the pain of absence. She goes to say:

Vinnie and Sue, are making Hot beds –but then, the Robins plague them so – they don't accomplish much –

The Frogs sing sweet – today – They have such pretty – lazy – times – How nice, to be a Frog! Sue – draws her little Boy – pleasant days – in a Cab – and Carlo – walks behind, accompanied by a Cat – from each establishment –

These comments give us a glimpse into the gardening techniques used at the Homestead. “Hot beds” were popular in Victorian times. People dug a bed about 2 ½ feet deep and lined it with fresh, uncomposted horse manure, which was plentiful in this era and which is rich in nutrients. This formed the nitrogen layer, which would soon heat up, providing warmth and fertility for the roots of plants. This layer could be covered by straw, wood chips, branches or shredded paper, forming the carbon layer, with a cold frame placed over it and tender plants placed in it. As soon as the manure “composted” or broke down, the bed would lose its warmth, but creating hot beds gave gardeners at least two months of additional growing time in the spring. Using this technique, people in colder climates could also grow cold hardy plants like lettuce through the winter.

The mention of “hot beds” dates this letter to early spring, as does Dickinson’s reference to the song of the frogs, “spring peepers,” Pseudacris crucifer, whose chirping calls at night announce the beginning of spring and the mating season. Her exclamation here suggests one of her most famous poems, which Franklin dates to 1861: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? (F 260, J288), with its memorable lines in which she comically disparages existence as a frog:

How dreary – to be ­– Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To Tell your name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

Note that spring peepers vocalize between March and June and their songs are indeed “pretty” and “lazy.” Dickinson might be thinking in this poem of the American bullfrog, whose vocalizations last until July in the Northeast and sound much more like the self-promoting “roaring” she conjures here.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Melissa ZeigerMelissa Zeiger

The name of our course, “Garden Politics,” may seem counterintuitive; what could more perfectly represent refuge, haven, retreat than a garden?  When you think about it, however, gardens have been packed with ideology since their beginnings.  In Egypt, Sumeria, Alexandria, Rome, and onward, they formed monuments, in trees and flowers, to empire, religious belief, rulers, and ruling classes.  In the Old Testament, God’s commandments to Adam license human dominion over the rest of nature, causing a great deal of trouble down the ages—in very beautiful language.

Our class on “Garden Politics” considered other questions of meaning and belief suggested by gardens, beginning with some postcolonial gardens and critiques that explicitly comment upon the politics, ethics, and power relations encoded in these topics, and moving to other examples.  Ivy’s White Heat blog provided a perfect, and exciting, extension of our discussions thus far.  Our look at Dickinson and her poems about gardens also created a context for thinking about the way twentieth century female poets reacted against traditional poetic representations of women as like garden flowers, constricted and conventional.

In response to the Dickinson poems for this week, Ivy’s visit to our class, and the readings we assigned them, the students in the course wrote the varied comments she has posted here.  Broad in their range of concerns, they pick up on certain repeating themes:  erotic feelings, transgression of accepted conventions, and innovation in garden writing in the first set.  In the second set, prevailing themes are the attraction to and embodiment of estrangement in Dickinson’s poetry, doubts about poetry’s usefulness or aliveness, the isolation of gardens and humans, and a move away from anthropocentric understandings of nature. Perhaps bringing the strands together, one paper on “Four Trees – upon a solitary Acre” suggests that the trees’ solitude and removal from ordinary human concerns, like that of Dickinson’s poetry, allows for poetic autonomy.

bio: Melissa Zeiger is Associate Professor of English at Dartmouth College. She teaches courses and writes on: garden literature; ecocriticism; immigrant writing; Jewish women’s writing; feminist criticism and theory; queer poetry; politics of the love lyric; modern poetry; women's poetry; Elizabeth Bishop; the poetry and politics of illness; cultural memory theory. Her first book was a feminist analysis of elegy (Beyond Consolation, 1997); she recently published an article on romance novels about heroines recovering from breast cancer and mastectomy; and she is currently writing a book on the poetics and politics of garden writing, one chapter of which appeared in 2017 as "Derek Jarman's Garden Politics" in a special issue of Humanities Journal on "Crisis."


Kuhn, Mary. "Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility." ELH, vol. 85 no. 1, 2018, pp. 141-170, 142, 151.

Hampshire Gazette, May 20, 1862

Springfield Republican, May 17, 1862.


April 30-May 6, 1862: Gardens

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

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

“Garden Politics”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May-day has come”


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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons (1817-1887). Public Domain,
Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons (1817-1887). Public Domain,

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

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

School-Girls, Ideal and Actual. —

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Life’s Question” by the Dean of Canterbury

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Earth as Heaven”

Dickinson once remarked to her Norcross cousins,

I was reared in the garden you know,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Ivy Schweitzer

Two garden poems:

“Caging the Tulips”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My greenhouse
My greenhouse

“Bringing down the Basil”

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

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

manure and ruthlessness.

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

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

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

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.



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

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

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

This week in History

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

This week in Biography

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


March 19-25, 1862: Spring!

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

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

“The Mystic Day”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your general loves you”


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

George B. McClellan. 1861 photograph by Mathew Brady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Levy Yulee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Early Soldier-heart”

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

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

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

March 22: Dickinson writes to Louise and Frances Norcross:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder – wear!

(F384A, J426)

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Sharon Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon Barnes

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


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