December 24-31, 1862: Winter

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness. It is part of her extensive seasonal imagery, which we will explore through her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry. This is also the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness, and also of the holidays of lights— Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Diwali—with their candles, oil lamps, evergreens and messages of peace despite contemporary contamination by consumerism. It was heartening to hear several stories in the media calling for “giftless” holidays or giving the gift of presence and intimacy or homemade gifts. It’s a good time to think of renewing our commitments to making and nourishing connections and building bridges not walls.

Dickinson calls winter the “Finland of the Year” (J1696), and it is part of her extensive seasonal imagery. As we will see in our explorations of her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry, winter signals cold, deprivation, isolation and death. But it also suggests purity through the important images of whiteness, clarity, strength, independence and perseverance. As critic L. Edwin Folsom commented,

Winter, for Emily Dickinson, was a primary source of her realism.

Winter is also the time in which we lay up the seeds and resources for next year’s resurgence. For those of us in the north, it signals the end of the year and also the return of the light after the Winter Solstice. Thus, it is fitting that this is the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

“Strong and Healthy as a Northern Breeze”

Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1

Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.

“Public attention has been turned from the auxiliary situation for some days by an attempt of the majority of the Senate to force a reconstruction of the cabinet for the sake of dropping out Mr. Seward, which was temporarily successful, but terminated in the return of the secretaries to their previous positions. The first shock of the Fredericksburg disaster [the battle fought Dec 11-15] has been overcome, and since it is seen that the losses were less than at first supposed, that the army is not demoralized by the failure, and since Gen. Burnside assumes the whole responsibility of the experiment, hope begins to be entertained that the winter campaign in Virginia has not been terminated by it, and that some means of reaching Richmond may be discovered more hopeful than dashing our gallant army in places against impregnable fortifications.

Success of Physical Culture at Amherst College, page 2
“We are glad to receive from time to time favorable accounts of the working of the gymnastic system which has been adopted by the trustees of Amherst College. During the term, and indeed during the year, the health of the students has been remarkably uniform. Not a single case of fever has occurred in college during the year. Of 178 students who were present during the fall term, only five were at any time on the sick list for more than two days.”

Late from China and Japan: Russia sending troops to China—The Revolution in Japan, page 5
“It was rumored that a large body of Russian troops were coming from the Amoor to aid the Chinese government in the recapture of Ningpoo, and to put down the rebellion. James’ Herald of November says the revolution in Japan is complete. The tycoon [“taikun” or great commander] has been stripped of nearly all his special privileges.”

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“Of the remaining poems of [Bayard Taylor’s new volume], “Passing the Sirens” is the best. It is as strong and healthy as a northern breeze, and too full of life and power to be anything less than an offspring, most classically disguised, of personal experience. We trust the volume may find many appreciative readers, and that abundant room may be made for the author in the high place which belongs to him as an American poet.”

Original Poetry: Dying for Love, [by William Walsh (1662-1708) English poet and friend of Alexander Pope] page 7

William Walsh,
Atlantic Monthly,
December 1862

The Fossil Man, page 670 [by C. L. Brace (1826-1890), an American social reformer]
“What a mysterious and subtile pleasure there is in groping back through the early twilight of human history! The mind thirsts and longs so to know the Beginning: who and what manner of men those were who laid the first foundations of all that is now upon the earth: of what intellectual power, of what degree of civilization, of what race and country. We wonder how the fathers of mankind lived, what habitations they dwelt in, what instruments or tools they employed, what crops they tilled, what garments they wore. We catch eagerly at any traces that may remain of their faiths and beliefs and superstitions; and we fancy, as we gain a clearer insight into them, that we are approaching more nearly to the mysterious Source of all life in the soul.”

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Editor’s Easy Chair, page 134

"Titania and Bottom," 1790, artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)

“The letter of Garibaldi to the British nation contrasts strangely in the purity of its appeal to the loftiest principle with the apparent character and conduct of the people to whom it is addressed. Yet the contrast is between the heroic faith of Garibaldi and the hesitating, treacherous timidity of the British Government, and not between the instinct of the Italian fils du people and that of the people of England. When you hear the high appeal, breathed in passionate music, it is impossible not to think of Titania and Bottom [from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV.1. An angry King Oberon casts a spell on Queen Titania, so that she falls madly in love with Bottom, a weaver who has been given the head of an ass.] When you turn from English history, or the London newspaper of today, to listen to that clear Southern voice intoning the principles and ideas which it is the glory of men to have uttered centuries ago, it is almost if you have heard that voice itself out of history, vague, remote, illusive.”

“Better than a Summer”

“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883
“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883

The last week in December was likely a cold and perhaps dreary time in the Dickinson household. The earliest New England Puritans were not keen on Christmas, which they claimed had no scriptural foundation and was celebrated in Old England by carnival-like activities they found reprehensible. They outlawed Christmas, but by the mid-eighteenth century, it had become a popular holiday in the US embraced by Congregational Churches as a time for formal observance. The December 27, 1862 issue of the Republican reported:

Here at home we see the usual demonstrations on the part of the whole people for a spirited and bona fide celebration of the holiday rites,

but we have no idea how the family of the Homestead spent the holiday, if at all.

Dickinson’s letters from this time indicate that she was preoccupied with Samuel Bowles’s return from Europe in mid-November, and her imagery in those letters sheds light on her broader attitude towards winter. After his return, Bowles visited the Homestead, but Dickinson refused to come down and see him, and sent this note instead:

Dear friend
I cannot see you. You will not less believe me. That you return to us alive, is better than a Summer. And more to hear your voice below, than News of any Bird.
      Emily. (L276)

In a longer letter sent at the same time, Dickinson explained that,

Because I did not see you, Vinnie and Austin, upbraided me – They did not know I gave my part that they might have the more.

The rest of the letter is elliptical and ends on a note of shared suffering and renunciation with these two lines:

Let others – show this Surry's Grace -

Myself – assist his Cross. (L277)

Dickinson’s description of Bowles’s safe return as “better than a Summer” places it within her seasonal symbolism where she measures it against her favorite season of the fullest sun, light, warmth, life, even eternity. Evoking related symbolism in other letters, Dickinson associates winter with death, as in this (melo)dramatic outburst to the Hollands in November 1858:

I can't stay any longer in a world of death. Austin is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week – our man, Dick, lost a little girl through the scarlet fever. I thought perhaps that you were dead, and not knowing the sexton's address, interrogate the daisies. Ah! dainty – dainty Death! Ah! democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden, – then deep to his bosom calling the serf's child!

Say, is he everywhere? Where shall I hide my things? Who is alive? The woods are dead. Is Mrs. H. alive? Annie and Katie – are they below, or received to nowhere? (L195)

Later in her life, Dickinson will reverse this symbolism, suggesting that it is death that brings winter no matter what season it is, as in this description of her mother’s death from 1882:

She slipped from our fingers like a flake, and is now part of the drift called “the infinite.” (L785)

In her classic study of Dickinson’s imagery, Rebecca Patterson saved the last chapter for an explication of the symbolism of “The Cardinal Points,” which Barton Levi St. Armand expanded into what he calls “Dickinson’s mystic day.” Patterson argues that Dickinson learned the power of symbolism from Emerson, who asked in his great essay Nature (1836)

is there no intent of an analogy between man’s life and the seasons? And do the seasons gain no grandeur or pathos from that analogy?

Patterson finds that Dickinson

was in fact a naïve symbolist who … used this symbolism like a second language, or a species of shorthand

but often diverged from Emerson’s ideas. For her, “North” and “northern” and its equivalents like “Arctic” and “Polar” are associated with night, specifically midnight, winter and elements like sleet, snow, frost, glaciers, freezing, icicles, darkness, blindness, death, and the color white

as an arbitrary (cultural) identification of chastity or virginity.

As we discussed in our earlier post on White, these cultural associations are hardly “arbitrary” at all.

In many symbol systems, including Dickinson’s, the north and winter have some positive attributes and are associated with masculinity, maturation, power, hardihood, independence, female virtue, and faithfulness. Patterson suspects Dickinson absorbed these ideas from the writings of John Ruskin, a prominent English art critic, which, in a letter from April of this year, she told Higginson she was reading.

Amherst in Winter (no date)
Amherst in Winter (no date)

In several of his works, Ruskin praises northern superiority, which flourishes in the cold and, like the hemlock trees surrounding the Homestead, is strengthened by the deprivations of winter. Not surprisingly, given her skepticism, the north is where Dickinson locates her God, but it is also the regions associated with Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In several poems, she refers to winter and “snow” as a “Prank,” a joke God or Nature plays on humans (see “The tint I cannot take” (F696, J627) and “These are the days that Reindeer Love” (F 1705, J1696).

Finally, to bring this back to Dickinson’s relationship to Bowles, Patterson traces a set of poems and letters she wrote to him in 1861-63 beginning with “Title divine in mine” (F194 , J1027) in which Patterson surmises that “snow” refers to sexual purity and the martyrdom of renunciation. We might contest this biographical reading with its symbolic “shorthand” as reductive, though Patterson concedes:

These poems of northern cold and darkness always imply their opposites.

We have only to think of the “White Heat” of creativity that also characterizes this period in Dickinson’s life.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


(the last!) Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

It has been a year of unmitigated creative fun and revelations for me as I blogged every week of Dickinson’s life and writing in 1862!

I recognize how lucky I am to have had the luxury of spending a year with one poet who so richly deserves and repays our closest attention. To be able to read extensively and deeply in the biographical materials has been essential. And to dip into the newspapers and periodicals Dickinson most likely read on a daily basis has sharpened my sense of the issues surrounding her, in the air and on people’s lips and minds. And not only the substance of the news, but its form: the large, packed pages of print, sometimes broken by a tiny square of poetry; reports of grisly war next to fluff pieces reinforcing Victorian sex-gender conventions about “the perfect girl,” “How husbands should act,” “How wives should act,” and so on. Serious news next to the latest in fashion, and in periodicals, now-famous writers published without by-lines.

Another absolute revelation was engaging people to reflect on the weekly posts and the range and depth of passion for Dickinson this unearthed. From the amazing 7th graders at the Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, to a poet and translator living and working under life-threatening conditions in Iraq, a translator of Dickinson in Germany wresting with diction choices, scholars and poets, friends and those who volunteered to reflect whom I had not even met—Dickinson continues to be a comfort and confidante to so many readers around the world and across time.

While the project didn’t manage to include every poem Franklin dated to 1862, it included a good many from “around” that year and some that don’t often get anthologized or discussed. But then, this project reinforced for me the folly of getting too hung up on dates and dating. Dickinson’s canon is a floating, morphing, wonderfully organic landscape that benefits from less strictures and determinations rather than more.

If we can let go of our need to “know,” to figure out the riddles or fill in the omitted center, or “understand” and, thus, pin down and lock in, then the poems have the leeway to work their magic on us more thoroughly. If I had to choose one major take-away from my year with Dickinson’s poetry, it would be:

ask questions rather than assert. Open up meanings rather than close them down. Bring a humility to our reading of the poetry

—a recommendation academics have a hard time embracing. But as the Crossroaders titled their thank you note to me:

Crossroads Thank you, front cover
Crossroads Thank you, front cover

“In Poetry is Possibility.”

Though fun, it was not always an easy year and I was sometimes daunted by how the research and writing on a weekly basis expanded to fit the time. In November, I presented the project to Martha Nell Smith’s class on Dickinson and Whitman at University of Maryland, and one of her students asked me: what gives you the energy to go on every week? Without thinking, I replied: Every week there is a surprise, sometimes many surprises, which sometimes, for me —a Dickinson dilettante—rose to the level of a discovery.

Crossroads Thank you, inside
Crossroads Thank you, inside

A few other take-aways I would pass on:

The letters. There is some wonderful scholarship on Dickinson’s letters but they are not read frequently enough as aesthetic texts in their own right alongside the poetry. And perhaps they require a different, and new, methodology of textual reading. But read them we should be doing on a par with the poetry.

Speaker and Gender. I tried to honor Dickinson’s assertion in her letter to Higginson that her poetic speakers are “representative persons” rather than autobiographical, but then struggled with the presumption that her speakers are necessarily female or feminine or gendered at all! I loved the group of poems we found where Dickinson speaks not just in a masculine voice, but as a boy–a very particularly gendered and located voice. And her use of the plurals they and them for singular subjects or the arresting themself. I found myself often reaching for a non-gendered pronoun with which to refer to Dickinson’s speakers. This is an area that needs so much more work and innovative thought.

The World. Finally, the extent and richness of the world Dickinson occupied and evoked. Reading in the Springfield Republican for July about the discovery of the Swift-Tuttle comet, I wondered if I could find poems that might touch on that event and was amazed to find a whole cluster of poems on Astronomy. Or the cluster of bloody poems on what fellow poet John Greenleaf Whittier called “the battle autumn of 1862.” We are still discovering the many ways that Dickinson engaged with her world and turned it into poetry.

Crossroads Thank you, back cover
Crossroads Thank you, back cover

But this is not the end. Or rather, as Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater and a big fan of Dickinson, implies in his calendar for December: in ending are beginnings. We will probably run the blog again this coming year, so if you have missed any posts, you will be able to catch up. And look for White Heat 1862 in another guise (an ebook) in the coming years.

It has been an honor to share this project with you. Profoundest thanks to my students who worked to make this dream a reality, to my web designer and other tech wizards who lent their expertise, to my family who put up with my incessant monologues on things Dickinsonian, and to all the users, participants and fans who dared to “see a soul at the White Heat.”

Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018
Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018

Bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the creator and editor of White Heat.

Folsom, L. Edwin. “‘The Souls That Snow’: Winter in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” American Literature 47. 3 (Nov., 1975): 361-376, 376.

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Complete Works.

Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 182-83, 185.

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December 10-16, 1862: Paradise

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lift the Earth to Paradise”

Springfield Republican, December 13, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, December 16, 1862

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

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

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

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

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

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

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

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

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

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

“Earth so like to Heaven”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From this, Keane concludes,

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Martha Nell Smith

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

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

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

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

out of the storm
February seventeenth /

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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November 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.

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November 12-18, 1862: Crucifixion

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Life in America had Lost Much of its Attraction”

Springfield Republican, November 15, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1

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

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

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

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

"The Sweetest Death"

Hampshire Gazette, November 18, 1862

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

Atlantic Monthly, November 1862

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

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

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

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

“The Man of Sorrow”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Sheila Byers

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

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

Hill of Calvary
Hill of Calvary

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

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

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

Jennifer Leader

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

                                           — Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 5-11, 1862: Death

This week in our time is Veterans Day on November 11, an official holiday first known as Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I. It was then renamed in 1954 as a day to honor people who served and died in the US Armed Forces and seemed a good week to explore Dickinson’s poetry of death. This week, we explore how Dickinson borrows, adapts and often subverts many of her culture’s attitudes and formulas in her wide-ranging and often surprising treatments of death.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Naseer Hassan

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

In our time, November 11 is Veterans Day, an official holiday first known as Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I. It was then renamed in 1954 as a day to honor people who served in the US Armed Forces. It is a day to remember those who served and especially those who died. It seems a fitting week to explore Emily Dickinson’s many startling poems about death, written during a time of war. We also have a  special guest respondent, Iraqi poet and translator of Dickinson, Naseer Hassan, who has lived under the shadow of war and death for many years and finds consolation in Dickinson's words.

Dickinson wrote about death all through her life but many of her masterpieces cluster in the period of 1861-63, when the nation itself struggled to come to terms with the awful, mounting death toll of the war. Critics and readers agree that some of Dickinson’s greatest poems touch on death and the questions it raises: what is it and why is it? what does it feel like to die? how should we regard death? and especially, what happens after death?

Death touched Dickinson early in her life and frequently thereafter, affecting her deeply. Wendy Martin calculates that 31 of her friends and family died from tuberculosis during her lifetime. But she was not alone or idiosyncratic in her preoccupation. Puritan tradition has a long history of focusing on “making a good death,” and sentimental Victorian culture was obsessed with all the trappings of death, the stages of dying, the rituals of the deathbed and burial. This obsession was fed but also profoundly disrupted by the unprecedented carnage caused by the Civil War, as Drew Gilpin Faust demonstrates in her powerful study, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. This week, we explore how Dickinson borrows, adapts, and often subverts many of her culture’s attitudes and formulas in her wide-ranging and often surprising treatments of death.

“The Night is Murk, and the Stars are Dim”

The Springfield Republican, November 8, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The advance of the army of McClellan into Virginia goes on steadily and with a good degree of speed. But the news from the front is so limited, from motive of obvious military prudence, that we know only a part of what has been accomplished and can only conjecture the plan of the campaign. Gen. McClellan seems to be endeavoring to close all avenues of escape against the enemy, and it is believed at Washington that he is conducting the campaign with great sagacity and energy, and that he will win a great success without any such terrible sacrifice of life as has attended most of our battles in Virginia.” [Ed. Note: McClellan’s caution and failure to act would soon drive President Lincoln to relieve him of his command.]

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“The resignations of [M. Thouvenel, the French minister of foreign affairs, and M. Fould, the minister of finance] indicate a decided change in the policy of France toward Italy, and it is regarded as certain that the French will not evacuate Rome. The emperor of the French has lately become very pious, and all France looks on in amazement at the sudden ascendancy of the priests’ party.” [see The Second Italian War of Independence]

Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)
Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)

Souls Misplaced, page 6
“Mrs. Kirkland [Caroline Mathilda Stansbury Kirkland (1801-1864), an American writer]  writing of those men and women who seem to have got each other’s attributes—the men having the softness of woman, the woman the roughness of man, said, ‘In these cases the natural body has only to be laid aside by its decease for the spirit to assert its latent sexuality; so that many a woman who has gone to sleep on this side of Jordan in short gown and petticoat, will wake up by mere spiritual gravitation on the other side in corduroys and top boots; and many a man who has lain down in coat and pantaloons, will in like manner come to his true self-consciousness in petticoat and curl papers!’”

Wit and Wisdom, page 7
“A drop of the blackest ink may diffuse a light as brilliant as the light of day.”

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“The pleasant newspaper essays with which Henry Ward Beecher [1813-1887]  has amused his own lighter moments and those of his friends during the last few years, have been gathered into a comely little volume with the somewhat repulsive title of Eyes and Ears. Let no one turn away from the work as a treatise on special anatomy. The myriad-minded pastor refers to eyes that see ‘the light that never was on sea or shore,’ besides a great deal that adds beauty and interest to both; to ears that catch the melodies in which ‘the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.’”

Hampshire Gazette, November 11, 1862

Amherst,page 3
“Monuments and gravestones have been defaced in the burying ground in Amherst, by certain evil-minded persons who have not the fear of the law before their eyes.”

Harper’s Monthly, November 1862

Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908)
Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908)

Buying Winter Things, page 803 [by Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908), an American poet, story-writer and critic]
“I have not realized the fact of suffering as I realize it now. It is the hour of darkness all over the land. The resurrection morning will come by-and-by, but now the night is murk, and the stars are dim. I have given more to my country than gold could buy. One I loved, and who loved me, went, in August, with the three-years’ men [men who enlisted for three years and often received a bounty]. He came to me with the light of eager courage and self-devotion in his eyes, and asked me to bid him God-Speed, and send him on his mission. Yes, I gave him up. He is gone. He will come again, perhaps; but I can never forget that other perhaps—that the mouth which kissed mine at parting may never kiss again, and the eyes at whose courage I lit the fire of my own resolve may look their last on the smoky sky of some Southern battle-ground.”

“Dying is a Wild Night and a New Road”

winged skull grave imager

“Even in an age fascinated by [death’s] every manifestation and trapping,” according to Judith Farr, Dickinson “showed exceptional curiosity about death.” Curiosity, indeed. In several letters throughout her life, Dickinson wrote to observers at the death beds of loved ones asking, “Was he/she willing to die,” since “making a good death” in the Puritan religious tradition gave some indication that one was predestined for salvation (see, for example, L153 to Edward Everett Hale on death of her father’s law clerk and her poetic mentor Benjamin F. Newton).

But the deaths of loved ones decimated Dickinson. When she was fourteen, her close friend Sophia Holland, “with whom my thoughts & her own were the same,” died. This loss affected her profoundly. Two years later, on March 28, 1846, she wrote about this death to her new friend Abiah Root:

I visited her often in sickness & watched over her bed. But at length Reason fled and the physician forbid any but the nurse to go into her room. Then it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even to look at her face. At length the doctor said she must die & allowed me to look at her a moment through the open door. I took off my shoes and stole softly to the sick room.

There she lay mild & beautiful as in health & her pale features lit up with an unearthly—smile. I looked as long as friends would permit & when they told me I must look no longer I let them lead me away. I shed no tear, for my heart was too full to weep, but after she was laid in her coffin & I felt I could not call her back again I gave way to a fixed melancholy.

I told no one the cause of my grief, though it was gnawing at my very heart strings. I was not well & I went to Boston & stayed a month & my health improved so that my spirits were better. I trust she is now in heaven & though I shall never forget her, yet I shall meet her in heaven (L11).

As Farr notes, this early letter “contains some expressions common to sentimental Victorian death scenes,” but its suffering is real. Almost forty year later, the death of Susan and Austin’s third child, 8 year old Thomas Gilbert, nicknamed Gib, from typhoid fever in October 1883 devastated the family and caused Dickinson to have a breakdown from which she never recovered.

Thomas Gilbert
Thomas Gilbert “Gib” Dickinson (1875-1883)

Joan Kirkby outlines the larger cultural context for Dickinson’s attitudes. She notes that the 19th century experienced a “crisis of death” in which the new sciences and Enlightenment thinking severed death from its theological moorings, producing what theorist Roland Barthes calls “flat death,” demise without the assurance of an afterlife. People struggled with the notion of a “desacralized death” that thinkers, scientists and writers strove to explain.

At Amherst Academy in the 1840s, for example, Dickinson would have studied physician John Abercrombie’s Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers (1849), which declared:

our whole experience is opposed to the belief that one atom which ever existed has ceased to exist.

In the 1850s, Thomas Wentworth Higginson gave a series of lectures on spiritualism, a movement that had become wildly popular. They were printed as a track titled “The Results of Spiritualism,” and reported in the Springfield Republican on March 21, 1859. He concluded optimistically,

the principal results of the new phenomena, are the demonstrations of immortality and the removal of the fear of death and the terrors of theology.

Then, in the 1860s, the Civil War caused unforeseen and unprecedented death tolls. Drew Gilpin Faust explains that the war’s total fatalities, totaling about 620,000,

is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. … The Civil War produced carnage that has often been thought reserved for the combination of technological proficiency and inhumanity characteristic of a later time.

And that did not include civilians, women and children caught in the crossfire and chaos. Everyone was touched by the devastation.

One notable aspect of Dickinson’s “curiosity” about death was how it overlapped with her experience of love and passion, with the emotions of life in the body and in nature. In 1869, she wrote to console her cousin Perez Cowan on a loss and describes death in terms that echo one of her greatest erotic poems:

It grieves me that you speak of Death with so much expectation. I know there is no pang like that for those we love, nor any leisure like the one they leave so closed behind them, but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road.

I suppose we are all thinking of Immortality, at times so stimulated that we cannot sleep. Secrets are interesting, but they are also solemn – and speculate with all our might, we cannot ascertain  (L332).

Dickinson's graveDickinson planned out her own funeral down to the last details, requesting that her coffin be carried out the backdoor of the Homestead (not out the formal front door to a waiting, feather-bedecked, horse-drawn hearse, as was customary for people of her status) by six Irishmen who worked for her family, that they circle her flower garden, walk through the barn behind the house and down a grassy path across house lots and fields to West Cemetery and the family plot. For more details, See “Emily Dickinson and Death.” 

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Naseer Hassan

A small story with Emily Dickinson

My attention to Dickinson’s poetry started with reading a translation of some of her poems in a chapter of Archibald MacLeish’s Poetry and Experience (1961). That was in the 1990s. I felt then, ambiguously, that there was something mysterious and exceptional in those translated poems, but I felt simultaneously that the translation couldn’t grasp the precious essence of them.

This motivated me to search and find Dickinson’s poems in the English version (this was not easy at that time, due to the many restrictions and obstacles on books and publishing under the Iraqi dictatorship). I could later find a couple of books that included some of her poems. And the unique mixture of psychological introspection, the contemplative air of questions about death, fear, hope, and time—all this in short pieces urged me to try translating these small beautiful sculptures, to see how they would look in Arabic.

In those years I could only translate a few poems and published only 3; several I didn’t publish. The hard circumstances of living, the heavy censorship under the dictatorship, as well as some personal life difficulties made me not only stop translating more of Dickinson’s poems, but stop writing and publishing my own poems for long years too.

My “projects” revived about a decade ago and completing a book of Dickinson’s poems was a major one. And, so it was that Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems and Critical Articles was published first in Baghdad in 2009, then in Beirut in 2012. It included 51 selected poems and some critical articles on her poetry, to make it easier for the Arabic reader to approach this sort of unique, unfamiliar poetry.

In the past, there was perhaps only one book on Dickinson’s poetry in Arabic, as well as some translations of her poetry in magazines and periodicals. This reflects the profound cultural crisis in the Arab world, which affects many areas including the translation of foreign works into Arabic (and the statistics showing few translations of international works demonstrate this.) And as far as I know, my translation of Dickinson’s poetry is the first one in the current century, at least.

In the translation process, I faced exceptional difficulties. This kind of poetry, with its allusions, personifications, and interference of different levels in an integrated artistic context, needs special contemplation and an ability to “touch” the internal unity inside the rich variety. Without this, the hope of a successful translation will be in vain. Dickinson’s poems are almost like living tiny creatures, very sensible and rich, so the challenges of translation are naturally greater.

One of the important merits of great literature is that it can exceed limits of time and space. And Dickinson’s poetry has this merit; readers can see in its mirror the reflections of their own lives and contemplations, in spite of the huge distance in time and space from where the poems were born. Because we, Iraqis, passed through very hard conditions in the last decades—wars and destruction—questions about life, death, fear, hope, and the meaning of existence became more essential. All these elements exist in Dickinson’s poetry, so there is a sort of “spiritual kinship” with such poetry.

I love many of Dickinson’s poems, maybe most of all: “Because I could not stop for Death” and “I died for beauty,” which were two of the earliest poems I translated. Many questions and scenes that we pass through in our daily life make me go back to or remember this or that line of Dickinson’s poetry, and feel it again in a new way. For example, because our life in Iraq is almost like a continuous hurricane (with short intervals of peace), this makes it important to know how to restart again and again. And between each new start and another, there are spaces to stop and contemplate words like:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes
The nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.

Editor's note: Many thanks to poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who brought Naseer's  wonderful work to my attention and helped me make contact with him.

bio: Naseer HASSAN is an Iraqi poet and translator of poetry and philosophy. He was born in Baghdad in 1962 and graduated with a degree in architecture from Baghdad University. He is a member of the Iraqi Writers Union and the Iraqi Journalists Guild and has published four poetry collections in Arabic: [The Circle of Sundial] (1998), [Suggested Signs] (2007), [Being Here] (2008), and [Dayplaces] (2010). Hassan's collected poems appeared in 2010 from the Arabic Publishing House in Beirut. He has translated into Arabic three books of poetry and one of philosophy: [Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems and Critical Readings] (the first book on Emily Dickinson in Arabic); [Luis Borges: 60 Selected Poems]; [Days of the Shore: Selections from the New American Poetry 1980-2010]; and [Asian Philosophies by John Koller]. In addition, he has several poetic and philosophical translations forthcoming, including [Kierkegaard: A Brief Introduction], [Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation (Book 1)], and [House of the Star: Poems from Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes]


Faust, Drew Gilpin. The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Martin, Wendy. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 22.

Hampshire Gazette,
November 11, 1862

Harper's Monthly, November 1862

Springfield Republican, November 8, 1862

Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 4-5.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. “Preface.” The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Kirkby Joan. “Death and Immortality.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 160-168.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 5.

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October 29-November 4, 1862: Haunted!

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

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

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

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

“The Air is Full of Farewells”

Springfield Republican, November 1, 1862

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, November 4, 1862

Veliky, Novogprod, Russia
Veliky, Novogprod, Russia

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

Palmer Leg
Palmer Leg

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

Harper’s Monthly, November 1862

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

“Her Goth(ic) Persona”

19th century Halloween
19th century Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Rena J. Mosteirin

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

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

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

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

Do Not Be Afraid

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


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


Hampshire Gazette,
November 4, 1862

Harper's Monthly, November 1862

Springfield Republican, November 1, 1862


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

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

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

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September 24-30, 1862: Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

The Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862

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

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

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

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

Harper’s Monthly, September 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Congregational Church in Amherst
First Congregational Church in Amherst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Anna Morrison

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

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

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

Have a read—and a listen:

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

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

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


Antietam/Sharpsburg.American Battlefield Trust.

Emily Dickinson and The Church.The Emily Dickinson Museum.

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862

Harper's Monthly, September 1862

Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862


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

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

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

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

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

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August 13-19, 1862: Emerson and Thoreau

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

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

“Emerson and Thoreau”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Genius Makes its Observations in Shorthand”

Springfield Republican, August 16, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, August 19, 1862

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

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His Transcendental Arm”

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

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

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

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

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

As if he had come from where dreams are born.

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

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

Was the Sea cordial? Kiss him for Thoreau –.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Marianne Noble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, August 19, 1862

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Springfield Republican, August 16, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 23-29, 1862: School

This week in 1862 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by the redoubtable Mary Lyon. Dickinson’s experience there was mixed; she flourished at the private Amherst Academy. This week we look at the courses of study at the two institutions of learning Dickinson attended, the figures associated with them, and the effects of this education on her life and poetry.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Tom Luxon

“Emily Dickinson: a Mo Ho”

""This week in 1862 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by the redoubtable Mary Lyon. It would eventually become Mount Holyoke College, a prestigious women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The Hampshire Gazette noted the significance of this event:

At the time she instituted the seminary, there were in the country one hundred and twenty colleges for boys, but not one for girls, where they could get the highest form of education.

In fact, higher education and, thus, most professions in the United States, were closed to women until Oberlin College in Ohio began to admit women, as well as African Americans, in 1833. Although attitudes favoring women’s education and, thus, their full civil rights, were still in the minority at this time, Enlightenment thought and Republican ideology encouraged educating women who would then pass on Republican ideals to the next generation. Mount Holyoke was the first seminary established exclusively for women, but it awarded only a certificate not a baccalaureate.


Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for two terms in 1847-48 but it was a mixed experience for her. For one thing, the curriculum repeated many of the texts and subjects Dickinson had studied at Amherst Academy, which she attended from 1840-47 and was a more progressive institution that nurtured and even shaped her growing literary gifts. Dickinson was also extremely homesick and uncomfortable with the religious revival occurring at the time at Mount Holyoke, in which she was classified with several other girls as “a No-Hoper.”

In her second letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson answered what we can infer as his question about her education with this remark:

I went to school – but in your manner of the phrase – had no education (L261).

We have seen that Dickinson often minimized her situation to Higginson, in order to create the illusion of him as “Preceptor” and her as “scholar.” In fact, she had quite a good education at Amherst Academy, which Dickinson’s father Edward, her brother Austin, and Susan Gilbert attended, and whose curriculum, as well as the curriculum at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, was shaped by Edward Hitchcock, the noted Professor of Geology and Theology and President of Amherst College (1845-54). This educational influence helps to explain the remarkable range of scientific knowledge, especially in botany, astronomy, and geology, in Dickinson’s writing. This week, we will look at the courses of study at the two institutions of learning Dickinson attended, the figures associated with them, and the effects of this education on her life and poetry.

“The Christian World is Indebted … Most of All to Mary Lyon”

Springfield Republican, July 26, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The prospect brightens, and popular confidence has been greatly reinforced by the appointment of general-in-chief [Halleck], virtually vacant since Gen. McClelland went into Virginia. He has command of all the land forces of the United States and will direct the general movements of the war.”

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“The new tariff, with its increased duties upon [British] goods, and the impediments placed in the way of trade, seems to have filled the cup of English bitterness to the brim.”

The Want of the Hour, page 2
“White men, we say, are the want of the hour, and white men must be our reliance. Is it to be so supposed that a negro will fight for his liberty more readily than a white man? Is it to be supposed that the poor African, after generating in bondage for centuries, will find in the prospect of liberty a greater incentive to fight for the suppression of the rebellion than the white man finds in the considerations that are thrust upon him? We have nationality at stake; we have our own political freedom at stake; we have personal and national honor at stake; we have the interests of republican liberty throughout the world at stake. The negroes of the South—‘our natural allies’—are unorganized, unarmed, ignorant and inaccessible.”

Poetry, Page 6

Books, Authors, and Art, page 7
“The time has gone by when cheap novels in paper covers could be safely thrown aside as the merest literary trash. We have now in this form the most unexceptionable fictions, correct, sensible and entertaining.”

Hampshire Gazette, July 29, 1862

Pleasant Neighbors, page 1
“One’s pleasure, after all, is much affected by the quality of one’s neighbors, even though one may not be on speaking terms with them. A pleasant, bright face at the window is surely better than a discontented, cross one; and a house that has the air of being inhabited is preferable to closed shutters and unsocial blinds, excluding every ray of sunlight and sympathy.”

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, page 1


“For the foundation of institutions to give thorough intellectual training to women combined with the best religious influence, the Christian world is indebted to a very few persons, and most of all to Mary Lyon. At the time she instituted the seminary, there were in the country one hundred and twenty colleges for boys, but not one for girls, where they could get the highest form of education.”

“You are to Watch, and Water, and Nourish Plants”

At age 5 Emily Dickinson attended the local “primary school.” From ages 9-16, she studied at the private Amherst Academy, a school her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson helped found in 1814 to improve the level of education available in the area. The Academy was closely associated with Amherst College, employed many of its graduates as teachers and preceptors, and had a curriculum shaped by Edward Hitchcock, the inspirational man of science and religion who dominated the educational scene in Amherst and attracted many eminent scholars to the faculty of this small town in Western Massachusetts.


When Dickinson and Lavinia entered in Fall 1840, they joined a group of about 100 girls, supervised by a “preceptress,” who oversaw their academic as well as moral and religious development. Over her seven years’ attendance, Dickinson studied Latin, History, Ecclesiastical History, Botany, Mental Philosophy, Geology, Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry, English, Rhetoric, Composition and Declamation.

Although most nineteenth-century education was based on rote learning, repetition, and an enforced distance between teacher and student, Amherst Academy was, by comparison (not current standards) a model of progressive thought. First, there was the influence of Edward Hitchcock, the eminent Professor of Geology and Theology at Amherst College, who emphasized the importance of the sciences, even for young students. Then, as Erika Scheurer argues,

the influence of Swiss education reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and his disciples became more widespread, setting the stage for John Dewey’s more radical and celebrated reforms in the early twentieth century.

Pestalozzi, and his New England followers Samuel Read Hall and Richard Green Parker, stressed what Scheurer identifies as a “student-centered approach” that resembles the “liberation pedagogy” of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire. In this approach, students and teachers are encouraged to develop relationships of affection, not authority, learning is individualized and based on student autonomy and active agency.

Dickinson flourished in this environment in which Hall counseled young, well-educated teachers: “You are to watch, and water, and nourish plants.” Biographer Richard Sewall and Jack Capps, who has written an important study of “Emily Dickinson’s Reading,” discuss the beneficial effects of Amherst Academy’s progressive curriculum, especially in terms of Composition, on Dickinson’s development as a writer.

Schuerer explores this influence in detail, noting that Pestalozzi recommended “object teaching,” where “students learn to observe concrete objects from their lives, and then write about them in descriptive and analytical ways.” Hall encouraged ungraded informal personal writing and private letter writing, both of which Dickinson honed to a fine art. Parker took a “loose approach to questions of genre and form,” defining poetry by content (imagination and feelings) rather than form, embracing half-rhymes, the use of the dash as an expressive form of punctuation, and the use of capitalization to emphasize “[a]ny words when remarkably emphatical, or when they are the principal subject of the composition.” Dickinson clearly took these lessons to heart.


Although Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was a ground-breaking institution, it was a mixed experience for Dickinson academically and socially. She attended from September 30, 1847 to August 3, 1848, with several weeks at home in March and April with a bad cough. At the time of her enrollment, the Seminary had 235 students and 12 teachers. Mary Lyon encouraged a home-like atmosphere of cordiality between teachers and students, who all roomed together and did the household chores in a large brick house that combined living and academic spaces.

Still, the Seminary was bound by 70 rules for living, learning, and visiting, including an injunction to turn in rule-breakers. The day began at 6 am and was divided into half hour segments closely scheduled with times for academic studies, private meditation, prayer, calisthenics, chores and meetings. Dickinson chafed against the lack of privacy, lack of connection to the outside world and current affairs (she wrote a letter to her brother Austin jokingly asking: Who are the presidential candidates and is the Mexican War over?), the repetition of textbooks and subjects she studied at Amherst Academy, and the limited opportunities to visit her family just nine miles away.

And then there was the religious revival that started in December 1847 and lasted until May 1848. Biographer Alfred Habegger narrates the details of the “well-coordinated campaign” for Dickinson’s soul, and though Dickinson seems to have resisted in a particularly noteworthy way, at the end of the year, 30 of the 235 students  at the Seminary were also “No-Hopers.” This failure left Mary Lyon sick and depressed, and she died seven months later at age 52, at the height of her career.

From a poor background, Lyon used the meager schooling and connections available to her to become an expert in women’s education and the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she taught Chemistry and often cooked for the school. A student of Edward Hitchcock’s, she shared his passionate commitment to evangelical Christianity. Although she told young women they could do anything and opened her Seminary to the young working women from the Lowell Mills, the mission of her school was to produce women who would become devout wives and mothers and spread the word of Christ. Habegger notes with some irony that during Dickinson’s summer term at Mount Holyoke, on July 19-20, 1848, a small convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York, kicking off the “first wave” of women’s rights. But that seemed worlds away from South Hadley.

Tom Luxon

""I am intrigued by Erika Scheurer’s description of the educational philosophy that underpinned the curriculum at the Amherst Academy Emily Dickinson attended from 1840 to 1847. Scheurer describes it as a “student-centered approach” to education that anticipated Dewey and even Paulo Freire’s liberation pedagogy. “Teachers and students,” she writes, “are encouraged to develop relationships of affection, not authority, learning is individualized and based on student autonomy and active agency.” Based on my more than thirty years in higher education, including nine years as the founding director of a teaching and learning center, I consider the Academy’s practice progressive even by today’s standards. Today, lectures, quizzes, and exams still dominate the practice of teaching in higher education. Students no longer copy notes with slate and pencil, but power-point presentations are just as teacher-centered and content-centered as the typical 19th-century classroom. Learner-centered education has long been recommended by education experts and researchers, but largely ignored in US colleges and universities.

I can just imagine Pestalozzi, Hall, and Parker running exciting workshops at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, championing “object teaching” and ungraded analytical essays. The dozen or so participants would listen with fascination; half of them would try to adopt such methods; half of those would stick with it. But the teaching awards and major institutional recognition would continue to reward the clever lecturer and his power-point slides.

bio: In teaching and scholarship, I have focused on literature of the English Renaissance and Reformation, with a particular interest in John Milton, John Bunyan, John Dryden, and 17th-century English religion and politics. I am keenly interested in technological innovations for teaching and learning. I served from 2004 to 2013 as the inaugural Cheheyl Professor and director of the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning. For more, see my website.

See my most recent articles: from Milton Studies, volume 59: “Heroic Restorations: Dryden and Milton,”

and in Queer Milton, edited by David L. Orvis:



Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 29, 1862

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 15-26. See Appendix B for a list of Dickinson’s Mount Holyoke textbooks.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001, 139-66, 191-212.

Porter, Amanda. Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries. Religion in America Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Scheurer, Erika. “‘[S]o of course there was Speaking and Composition –’: Dickinson’s Early Schooling as a Writer.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 18, 1 (2009): 1-21, 3-4, 6-7, 11-18.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 337-57.

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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.

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