November 19-25, 1862: Aftermath

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

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Skeleton Finger of Want”

Springfield Republican, November 22, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, November 25, 1862

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

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

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

Atlantic Monthly, November 1862

“Wild Apples” by Henry David Thoreau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is nothing to
the Dead -

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Katrina Dzyak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 15-21, 1862: Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Battle Autumn of 1862”

Springfield Republican, October 18, 1862

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862

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

Harper’s Monthly, October 1862

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

Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

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

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

from “Autumnal Tints” by Henry David Thoreau

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

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

“Red is the Color of Colors”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dickinson must have appreciated Thoreau’s mocking account of their Puritan forebears:

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Autumn

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

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

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

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

but Brexit looms like winter’s chilblains.

Out of Place
             after Adrienne Rich

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

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

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

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

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.



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

Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862

Harper's Monthly, October, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 18, 186

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Dead of Antietam”

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862

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

Books, Authors and Art, page 3

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

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

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

Harper’s Monthly Illustrated Magazine, October 4, 1862

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

“You Saved my Life”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Reflection: “Trauma and the Image”

Sarah Khatry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

Harper's Monthly, October, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862


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

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

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

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September 17-23, 1862: Translation

This week we explore the subject of Dickinson in translation and her international reputation by focusing on the early and relatively unknown work of Dutch novelist, poet and essayist Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971), who translated some of Dickinson’s poems into Dutch and wrote a long critical essay admiring her, with a reflection on the challenges of translation by Dickinson’s current German translator Gunhild Kübler.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography/An Interview with Jedi Noordegraaf
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Gunhild Kübler

This week we explore the subject of Dickinson in translation and her international reputation by focusing on the early and relatively unknown work of Dutch novelist, poet and essayist Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971), with a reflection from  Dickinson’s current German translator, Gunhild Kübler. We discovered this work when we stumbled on the arresting portrait of Dickinson by the Dutch artist Jedi Noordegraaf, featured here. Drawn by its whimsical intensity and the deep appreciation of Dickinson’s life and work it expresses, we contacted Jedi to find out what drew him to Dickinson and how he learned about her work. You can read that interview in “This Week in Biography.” This led us to explore the difficult art of poetic translation and how Dickinson’s work fares in other languages and cultures.

In the course of our conversation with Jedi, we learned that Dickinson was popularized in the Netherlands by Simon Vestdijk, the eminent Dutch writer and poet who translated and wrote about Dickinson and other American writers. Following this lead, we discovered a long essay Vestidijk wrote and published in a Dutch journal in 1932-33, twenty years before Thomas Johnson brought out his Complete Poems in 1955.

Working from the regularized collections of poems published by Mabel Todd and Thomas Higginson and Martha Bianchi’s small edited collection, The Single Hound (1914) and her Complete Poems (1924), Vestdijk perceived Dickinson’s poetic brilliance and modernist innovations and publicized his appreciation just at the time her reputation was consolidating internationally. We will dip into Vestdijk’s essay and sample his insightful readings of a kindred poetic spirit who, he concludes,

has hardly been afforded the place she deserves, a place among the great originals of world literature, who can still have some significance for us.

“Words Could Satisfy the Heart”

The Springfield Republican, September 20, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“We are in the heat and fury of the great struggle. The rebellion, having gathered all its strength for a last effort before our new armies could be brought into the field, has sent its invading legions northward and westward to subjugate the loyal people of the Union on their own soil. This impudent purpose has been formally avowed by the rebel congress, and the entire armed force of the South has been gathered into the two invading columns for the effort.”

Courage and Cheerfulness, page 2
“There is no cheaper way of doing good than by cultivating a cheerful, hopeful spirit. It is a virtue that brings its own reward, and unlike certain other virtues, the reward comes at once, without delay. We have only to gather the roses instead of the thorns in the garden of life; both are always there.”

Lamartine’s Abstract Woman, page 6
Lamartine thus describes her: ‘Woman, with weaker passions than man, is superior to him in soul. The Gauls attributed to her an additional sense—the divine sense. They were right; nature has given women two painful heavenly gifts which distinguish them, and often raise them above human nature—compassion and enthusiasm. By compassion they devote themselves, by enthusiasm they exalt themselves. What more does heroism require? They have more heart and more imagination than man.’”

Poetry, page 6: “Words” [by Charles Swain, from Poems, Roberts Brothers, 1871. Charles Swain (4 January 1801 – 22 September 1874) was an English poet and engraver]
Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“A collection of second-rate witticisms is the dreariest of all dull reading. Articles that, occurring singly in the corner of a journal, may excite a good-natured smile, when presented collectively as a volume are ignored by the busy, repelled by the thoughtful, and only welcome by the frivolous and idle. Laughter, to be beneficent and healthful, should be the ripple on the surface of an onward-flowing stream, not the succession of circles made by dropping pebbles in a pond.”

The Hampshire Gazette, September 23, 1862

Literary: Review of Our Little Ones in Heaven, page 1 [probably the collection edited by Walter Aimwell (1822-1859), Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1858, perhaps reissued. But we also find: Our Little Ones in Heaven: A Collection of Thoughts in Prose and Verse edited with Intro by the Late Rev. Henry Robbins, M.A. London: Sampson Low, Son, and Co. Ludgate Hill. 1858. Shows how popular this subject was!]

“This is a judicious selection of poetry and prose written upon the subject of infant deaths. There are in it words of consolation and sympathy for the mourner that will command it to the bereaved and the afflicted.”

International News, page 2
“The average number of suicides in France is nearly three thousand a year. Official statistics show that in the thirty-two years from 1827 to 1858 inclusive, upwards of ninety-two thousand persons killed themselves.”

Harper’s Monthly, September 1862

The Language and Poetry of Smoke, page 499
“The language of smoke is far more varied than is generally imagined, and its poetry rich and plentiful. Although we usually connect the idea of smoke with that of evanescence, it is symbolical of life and activity, and its universality presents very many curious points of interest to the inquirer. There is no habit or custom known to humanity that has ever exhibited such tenacity of life, and has opposed such powerful resistance to the attacks of its opponents as that of smoking."

“My letter to the World”

From what we can tell, Dickinson did some translation from Latin in the course of her studies and studied German for a while until her instructor left. She also read some texts in translation. In his list of her reading, Jack Capps includes, for example, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, George Sand’s Mauprat and Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. And though Dickinson avidly consumed writing about foreign places in journals and newspapers, she didn’t engage much with translation into other languages as a literary form as did, for instance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of her role models. Still, Dickinson describes herself writing “my letter to the World,” (F519, J441), not just to Amherst, New England or the USA.

Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958)
Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958)

And in fact, Dickinson’s work has made its way around the globe. In his survey of Dickinson translations and her reception internationally, Domhnall Mitchell dates the earliest known translation to 1898 when four of Dickinson's poems appeared in German in the Illinois Staats-Zeitung. Immediately after the publication of The Single Hound in 1914, several poems appeared in Spanish translated by the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1956. While Mitchell doesn’t mention Simon Vestdijk’s translations or essay of 1932, he notes that Dickinson’s international reputation solidified by the 1930s with the publication of Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s Complete Poems and Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, both in 1924.

Jedi Noordegraaf
Jedi Noordegraaf

We will talk more about the complicated politics of translation in the Poems section. Here, we share with you our interview with Jedi Noordegraaf, a Dutch illustrator and graphic designer who works under the name Studio Vandaar and whose haunting rendition of Dickinson started us on this journey of searching for the poet in far-away places.

White Heat: Where did you get the inspiration for your beautiful and detailed portrait of Emily Dickinson?
Jedi Noordegraaf: My inspiration started with an idea to make a series of portraits of people that I admire. I wanted to make portraits that illustrate the essence of someone’s work and life. I started with the portrait of Emily Dickinson, since she is one of the greatest poets for me. For me, the essence of Emily is: a rich inner world, hidden from the outside world, full of life, plants and birds. Of course, this relates to her life in reclusive isolation.

WH: Are you familiar with her poetry, her letters, her life, and if so, how did you learn about her?
JN: Yes, I am familiar with most of her work and became more familiar with her life while doing research for the portrait. It started for me when I was 20 years old and came across a little book of poems in a second-hand bookshop in my hometown Ede. I was immediately visually attracted by the special use of dashes and capital letters. Her poems are punctual and crisp – I love that. That's why they have a certain incomprehensibility, a kind of mysticism: you can interpret them in many ways. After that first booklet, I collected most of her work.

WH: What is your favorite poem of hers and why?
Growth of Man – like Growth of Nature –
Gravitates within –
Atmosphere, and Sun endorse it –
But it stir – alone –

Each – its difficult Ideal
Must achieve – Itself –
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life –

Effort – is the sole condition –
Patience of Itself –
Patience of opposing forces –
And intact Belief –

Looking on – is the Department
Of its Audience –
But Transaction – is assisted
By no Countenance – (F790A, J750, 1863)

For me, this poem is about growth that happens in silence. That is quite a truthful observation, I think, and I recognize it in my own life. I start my day in silence; reading some poetry or texts from a prayer book. Simply: being with God, being quiet, thinking things over. Emily Dickinson's poems often express the joy about art, imagination, nature, and human relationships, but in her poetic world there is also room for suffering and the struggle to evade, face, overcome, and wrest meaning from it. I think in “modern western society” there is great lack of space for suffering. I notice that we are completely focused on the happy and positive things in life, and hide the difficult things we all are experiencing. But it is not always summer, it is also autumn and winter.

In a way, Emily Dickinson’s descriptions show some sort of “mindfulness.” Dickinson used her solitude to live her real self. Her own life was silent and for a long time Dickinson lived in solitude in Amherst. In this society of entertainment, fulfilling our dreams, experiencing & consuming all the things we want, Emily helps me to stand still, and to stay in touch with myself and the things that matter to me.

WH: Elements of the portrait look like flowers she collected in her Herbarium. Are you familiar with that work and how has it influenced your view of Dickinson?
JN: Yes, I know she had an Herbarium. In a way, I think she started her “writing Poetry” with collecting flowers. From there, she started to observe nature. From her gardening, she developed her aesthetic sensibility, and her vision of the relationship between art and nature. The gardener's intimate understanding of horticulture helped to shape Emily’s choice of metaphors for every experience: love and hate, wickedness and virtue, death and immortality.

WH: You also picture the Homestead in the portrait. Have you visited and if so, how did that experience influence your imagery?
JN: Sadly not; that’s on my bucket-list if I will visit the USA someday.

WH: How is Dickinson regarded in the Netherlands? Do your friends, family, colleagues know about her work and if so, what do they think of it?
JN: Emily Dickinson is made known in Holland by Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971), one of the greatest writers of the Netherlands. All her poems were translated by translator Peter Verstegen, together with commentaries [Poems 1 and 2, 2005 and 2007; Collected Poems 2011]. Willem Wilmink (1936-2003), a poet himself, translated some poems as well but did that with a more personal interpretation. Some friends & family love her poetry also, some don’t, some even don’t know her.

WH: How does Dickinson speak to you as an artist in the 21st century? What specifically about her work or life resonates with you?
JN: I like the mysticism in her life and poetry. Another connection is that as an illustrator, I’m also working mostly “alone,” in solitude. She, like me, also is a wrestler. She went off the beaten path, and for me as an illustrator, I’m always searching for a concept that is new, a different “angle” or perspective.

Like Emily, I have the same desire for silence and nature. I need silence to come into a flow of creativity. I live near the national park “de hoge veluwe” [in the province of Gelderland near the cities of Ede, Wageningen, Arnhem, and Apeldoorn]; for me it’s essential to walk or ride on my bike through nature once in a while.

WH: Please tell us a bit about yourself.
JN: Jedi Noordegraaf has been working as illustrator since 2009, operating under the name Studio Vandaar. His illustrations can be described as layered and conceptual with a rich color palette. The starting point for an illustration is always the text. The purpose is to express the essence of the article so that the message is extra powerful. Jedi’s specialty is drawing editorial illustrations for various magazines as well as covers. In addition, he also works on the visual identity of products or organizations. He worked for: the beer label Tongval (illustrations, graphic design & website), the Canvas Blanco band (illustrations & formatting) and the book Desert Fathers (illustrations & visual identity), chosen to be the best Theological Book of 2015!

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Gunhild Kübler

GKublerIn the name of the Bee
And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!
(F 23A)

At first sight, this small poem (written in the year 1858 according to editor R. W. Franklin), impresses us as a merry little text, delightful and inoffensive. Yet its very last word has a blasphemous sting. It shows that this little poem is a parody of the ritual formula proceeding each and every Christian service:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen

in accordance with the dogma of the Christian Trinity.

The trinity of Bee, Butterfly and Breeze, however, is an invention of the poet. She asserts it at the end of her poem with a proud “Amen,” clearly stating that she is celebrating here her secular service of spring and nature as she often does in her poems. In this way, she turns her back on that powerful image of “our father in heaven," propagated by her Calvinistic church, the service which she abhorred since early childhood.

The acoustic glue of Dickinson’s Trinity of Spring is a threefold alliteration, which has to be preserved in the German translation. Yet this is impossible: Bee and Breeze indeed have a German equivalent in “Biene” und “Brise.” But Butterfly is the German “Schmetterling” and cannot be replaced, for example, by the German word “Butterblume” (Engl. buttercup). For Dickinson’s Bee symbolizes the love and potency of the Father, her Butterfly alludes to the metamorphosis of the resurrected Son, and the Breeze refers to the Pentecostal blowing of the Holy Spirit. That is why “Butterblume” (in spite of its beautiful double alliteration) cannot replace Butterfly.  Translation means negotiating and weighing gains and losses. To gain an additional B-alliteration here can never make up for the loss of the symbolic aura of Dickinson's butterfly.

Im Namen der Biene –
Und des Schmetterlings –
Und der Brise – Amen!


bio: Gunhild Kübler, born in 1944, studied German and English literature in Heidelberg, Berlin and Zurich. She earned her doctorate with Peter von Matt. Subsequently, she worked as a literary critic for the Swiss radio and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. She was the editor of Weltwoche and writes today for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Sunday. From 1990 to 2006 Gunhild Kübler was also a member of the critics' team of the program "Literaturclub" by Schweizer Fernsehen. She lives in Zurich. In 2015, she published the first complete German edition of Emily Dickinson's 1800 poems, Emily Dickinson: Sämtliche Gedichte.



Vestdijk, Simon. “On the Poet Emily Dickinson.” Trans. Peter Tydell (2002). Forum 5 and 6, 1932/3.

Hampshire Gazette, September 23, 1862

Harper's Monthly, September 1862

Springfield Republican, September 20, 1862

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966.147-88.

Mitchell, Domhnall. “Translation and International Reception.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 343-350.

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September 3-9, 1862: Volcanoes

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

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

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

central fire … which animates all men.

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

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

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

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

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

“Matters are Now at the Worst”

Springfield Republican, September 6, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, September 9, 1862

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

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

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

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

“Vesuvius – dont talk”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Renée Bergland

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 9, 1862

Springfield Republican, September 6, 1862


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 27-September 2, 1862: Home

This week in 1862 the Springfield Republican published an article under the eye-catching title “Immigration to Be Encouraged.” Given our present-day conflicts about immigration and the ongoing tragedy of separating immigrant parents and children, we decided to focus this week on the image of “home” in Dickinson’s life, thinking and writing, and what it means to be or feel homeless.

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

This week in 1862 the Springfield Republican published an article under the eye-catching title “Immigration to Be Encouraged.” This fact was rather surprising in a largely homogenous white and Protestant nation, which experienced anti-immigrant riots in the 1840s and 1850s, as well as the rise of the Know-Nothing Party, whose dominant issue was restricting immigration. But apparently, according to the Republican,

almost every farming town, and especially in the West, has exhausted all its available labor and the cry is for more men to cultivate the fields.

Given our present-day conflicts about immigration and the ongoing tragedy of separating immigrant parents and children, we decided to focus this week on the image of “home” in Dickinson’s life, thinking and writing, and what it means to be or feel homeless.

Emblem of the Know Nothing Party 1844-1860
Emblem of the Know Nothing Party 1844-1860

Several prominent literary scholars and psychologists—Gaston Bachelard, Kenneth Burke, Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson to name a few—have explored what Jean McClure Mudge calls “the reverberatory power of this central symbol” of home in our culture and literature. For psychologist Erikson,

the optimum sense of identity is to possess a feeling of at homeness.

In 1975, Mudge applied some of these writers' insights to Dickinson’s extensive use of this image and found that it

is perhaps the most penetrating and comprehensive figure she employs, [emerging] as a unique and unifying touchstone to several facets of the poet’s consciousness.

Mudge also sees a “universality” in Dickinson’s

situation, which was sometimes, if not gnawingly, to feel out-of-place as woman and writer, in short, homeless.

Sill, Mudge notes how frequently other writers of the time—Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, for example—expressed a similar feeling, and how “it seems to be the hallmark of our own day.” By exploring Dickinson’s many homes and houses—of nature, the body, the mind, poetry, memory, God—and their layered associations, we might illuminate our own fraught experiences of home and away.

“Praesidium et Dulce Decus”

Springfield Republican, August 30, 2018

Progress of the War, page 1
“The withdrawal of Gen. McClellan’s army from the James [River], while our army in eastern Virginia was on the banks of the Rapids involved great and obvious hazards. It gave the rebel leaders the best opportunity they could desire to throw their entire force against the smallest division of our army and annihilate before the army from the James could arrive to the rescue, and they were not slow to see and to seize their opportunity. But this had been foreseen and provided against as fully as could be. Gen. Pope made a quick and unmolested retreat from the Rapids to the Rappahannock, where he could make a better defense against the vastly superior members.”

Immigration to Be Encouraged, page 2
“The recent letter of Secretary Seward addressed to J.N. Gamble of Cincinnati, in which the subject of aid in our farming and industrial pursuits from foreign laborers is presented, is the key-note to a matter of vast and growing importance in our country, especially the West. The letter was in reply to a suggestion of Mr. Gamble that special efforts should be made to make up for a deficiency in laborers by encouraging immigration. We are glad that the foresight of our secretary anticipated the need, for almost every farming town, and especially in the West, has exhausted all its available labor and the cry is for more men to cultivate the fields.”

Feminine Advisers, page 6
“It is a wonderful advantage to a man, in every pursuit or avocation, to secure an adviser in a sensible woman. In woman there is at once a subtle delicacy of tact, and a plain soundness of judgment, which are rarely combined to an equal degree in man. A woman, if she really be your friend, will have a sensitive regard for your character, honor, repute. Female friendship is to man, ‘praesidium et dulce decus’—bulwark, sweetener, ornament of his existence. To his mental culture it is invaluable; without it all his knowledge of books will never give him knowledge of the world.”

Hampshire Gazette, September 2, 1862

Curious Case of Superstition, page 1
“A widow lady in Paris, aged about sixty-three, was accustomed to spend several hours every day before the altar dedicated to St. Paul in a neighboring church. Some villains, observing her extreme weakness, resolved, as she was known to be very rich, to share her wealth. One of them accordingly concealed himself between the carved work of the altar, and when no person but the old lady was there, he contrived to throw a letter right before her. She took it up, supposing it to be a miracle. In this she was more confirmed when she saw it signed ‘Paul, the Apostle,’ expressing the satisfaction he received by her prayers addressed to him, when so many newly canonized saints engrossed the devotion of the world and robbed the primitive saints of their wonted adoration.”

A Nice Girl, page 1
“There is nothing half so sweet in life, half so beautiful, or delightful, or so lovable as a ‘nice girl.’ Not a pretty, or a dashing, or an elegant girl, but a nice girl. One of those lovely, lively, good-tempered, good-hearted, sweet-faced, amiable, neat, natty, domestic creatures met within the sphere of home, diffusing around the domestic hearth the influence of her goodness, like the essence of sweet flowers.”

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

The New Gymnastics, page 129 by Dr. Dio Lewis (1823-1886)
“The common remark, that parents are too much absorbed in the accomplishments of their daughters to give any attention to their health, is absurd. Mothers know that the happiness of their girls, as well as the character of their settlement in life turns more upon health and exuberance of spirits than upon French and music. To suppose that, while thousands are freely given for their accomplishments, hundreds would be refused for bodily health and bloom, is to doubt the parents’ sanity.

“Home, Sweet Home!”

Of all the poets in an age that idealized home and associated women with domestic space, Dickinson is probably the one most closely associated with a house and home. Given that at some point in the 1860s, she started not leaving the Homestead, the gracious house her grandfather built and her father expanded and moved the family back into in 1855 after being forced to leave for a humiliating period of fifteen years. “Home” was a pervasive cultural icon of this period of growing industrialization and civil conflict. So redolent of peace and security that, according to Patrick Browne, popular songs like “Home, Sweet Home!” were banned in the Union Army camps because they incited desertions. To this day, and thanks to the loving curation of the Homestead’s buildings and grounds (pictured above), Dickinson is closely associated with this place, the literal house where she wrote all but a few of her poems and many of her letters.

But “home” was also a fraught space for Dickinson. She mentioned “emigrant” twice in her letters, both times in relation to the Homestead, suggesting that she experienced being a kind of immigrant at her home. In a letter to her dear friend Elizabeth Holland written in January 1856, Dickinson describes the move from the family’s Pleasant Street home to the Homestead, all of a block and a half away, in humorous terms with a cutting edge:

It is a kind of gone-to-Kansas feeling, and if I sat in a long wagon, with my family tied behind, I should suppose without doubt I was a party of emigrants!
They say that “home is where the heart is.” I think it is where the house is, and the adjacent buildings (L 182).

According to Patricia Thompson-Rizzo, who does a thorough reading of this complicated letter, Dickinson may be alluding to the sentiments if not the words of John Greenleaf Whittier's 1854 poem, "Song of the Kansas Emigrants,” which also contains the resonant term “Homestead:”

We cross the prairies, as of old
Our fathers crossed the sea;
To make the West as they the East
The Homestead of the Free.

At the time of this move, Dickinson’s father Edward was a congressman and proponent of the manifest destiny embodied in the immigration to Kansas, also known as “Bloody Kansas,” the site of bitter controversy and strife over the legality of slavery. Thompson-Rizzo concludes:

Reluctantly dragged to the neoclassically refurbished Homestead, Dickinson exposes the myth [of manifest destiny] so keenly lived by her father, [thus] providing an overt, albeit imaginative critique of the expansionist aims underlying the cult of domesticity as recently deconstructed by Amy Kaplan.

The second mention of emigrants comes in a June 1869 letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

You noticed my dwelling alone -To an Emigrant, Country is idle except it be his own (L330).

Dickinson did not dwell “alone,” but was very much a part of her family's life. In some ways, though, Dickinson still felt like an immigrant in her father’s house or, at least, wanted Higginson to believe so. She recognized and sympathized with the emigrant’s sense of loss and “idleness” in a strange land.

Over her life, Dickinson made many more striking assertions about her home and the concept of home especially in her letters. For example, in 1851 she wrote to her brother Austin, away at school, about the Dickinsons’ second home on Pleasant Street (which was later razed): “Home is a holy thing” (L59). In 1870, she wrote to a friend congratulating him on his marriage, saying: “Home is the definition of God” (L355). In 1875, she wrote to Maria Whitney: “Consciousness is the only home of which we now know. That sunny adverb had been enough were it not foreclosed” (L591). As Jean Mudge remarks, enclosures like houses and bodies and coffins were never far in Dickinson’s world from “closures,” endings, separations, death. Perhaps most famously, in 1876, Dickinson sent this resonant declaration to Thomas Higginson:

Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House that tries to be haunted (L459a).

Homes and houses abound in the poetry as well. One of Dickinson’s speakers declares, “I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose –” (F466A, J657) and another tells how she is exploring “Vesuvius at Home” (F1691A, J1705).

Scholars who work on Dickinson’s images of home and houses approach them from different directions: as an index of her attitude towards space and her body; as forms of containment; as structuring images; as “a sheltering framework;” as a metaphor for “breaking down the boundaries of consciousness.” All link her physical experiences of houses with her metaphysical concerns, which raises her poetry of domestic space to existential heights. As J. Brooks Bouson explains it, the house image

explores her Chinese-box view of reality: the soul or the mind of the poet is in the body which dwells in a house (in Amherst). That house, in turn, is contiguous to nature's house which borders on the heavenly home. Her special complication in considering this topic is that Dickinson uses the image in a paradoxical sense: that which is finite is replete with the infinite.

This is what Dickinson calls her “Compound Vision -/ Light enabling Light – The Finite furnished with the Infinite” (F830A, J906). Exploring these boundaries, according to Bouson, Dickinson “is paradoxically both released and confined in safety or as a prisoner.” The downside to this is that she can never achieve a resolution or synthesis

but only unresolved paradox as she uses her art to define the space she occupies and to bring into focus different planes of reality which are simultaneously remote and near.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Eliot Cardinaux

Passing, Exaltation, Pastorale


That wood in the wind clatters
slowly as laughter yawns
in the belly of weeping,

that the pain splits the earth
in her laughing,
the same two masks

which pale as noon marble
into sunset, crowding
the dome with shadow,

that heap in her folds,
to measure like wings, and
swallow a dream between.


On nature a dying love is placed;
she melts over the pines,
her shadow waxen.

An emblem of guilt
we embrace,
he invented the mind.

Like sinew, her wings’ acting
comfort the will
demands graces,

like thistle below a sign,
somewhere an action
we keep still.


Odd, how her soft-
spoken, uncanny
twin and the wicked

tresses dye in
the midday sun;
it bleaches dust on

too — she’s
gone to market, slown
down like

cartwheels in
a gloaming

Today I was surprised and very excited to receive an email from the poet and scholar Ivy Schweitzer that my recent poems, “Passing, Exaltation, Pastorale,” were published as this week’s reflection on White Heat, an online Dartmouth publication about Emily Dickinson.
Since I had sent the poems but wasn’t anticipating them being published on such short notice, I decided to write a prose reflection in addition to the verse she published. The topic of this week’s entry on White Heat is “Home.” Since, as you will see, the events that correlate on this week in 1862 pertain to immigration, and Ivy decided to focus on homelessness, I though I’d share this.
The rents are rising. Homelessness is on the rise as a statistic. Or I might be wrong, but I notice myself more aware of my privilege every time I walk to the store, and of the precariousness of that position in society: that of having a roof over one’s head. As I settle into a new living situation (I’ve been in Western Massachusetts, the town over from Dickinson's hometown of Amherst, for just over a month), I have felt the contention of the forces of capitalism at its decay quite potently, to put it mildly. Not having bus fare. Having to work odd jobs to scrape by. These are not news to me. But all around me I see people struggling. From the man who sleeps out back of the Amherst bookstore where I work, who asked to put in the good word. He was trying. To the hobos that lay under the bridge a block from my house in Northampton. I often stop off with a bottle of water or a nip, and hand them a couple of cigarettes. I can hardly afford it.
The fact that helping people sustain basic needs puts me in jeopardy is a good thing because it teaches me the lesson of what it means to go without. In an age where those in power are taking everything for themselves, including the rights of citizens to their own citizenship, it is empowering to learn how to survive with the bare minimum, and I think it deepens the empathy I have for people who are living this as a constant, often not by choice. As we near the third decade of what was once a new century, I find it poised within me to stand guard over people who have less because I know how it feels. 
I just wanted to share that in terms of what this is teaching me; I think I have a long way to go, but that accepting this life has taught me that I’m not alone.
Enjoy the poems, peruse the blog (Ivy has put together a great project on a phenomenal poet), and think a little on others. It will do you good.

Bio: Eliot Cardinaux
Poet, Pianist, Multimedia Artist


Mudge, Jean McClure. Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975, xvii-xviii, 1, 13.

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 2, 1862

Springfield Republican, August 30, 1862


Browne, Patrick. “‘Auld Lang Syne’ Banned.” Historical Digression. January 2, 2011.

Bouson, J. Brooks. “Emily Dickinson and the Riddle of Containment.” Emily Dickinson Bulletin 31 (1977), 33-35.

Mudge, Jean McClure. Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975, 6-7.

Thompson-Rizzo, Patricia. “Gone-to-Kansas: A Reading of Dickinson's L182.” RSA Journal 14, 2003: 17-35, 21-22.

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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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June 18-24, 1862: Music, by guest blogger, Dr. Nicole Panizza, Coventry University

This post offers an account of Dickinson’s relationship to, interactions with, and employment of musical reference, gesture and idiom. It begins with a brief outline of Dickinson’s musical training and her reaction to musical performance trends of the day, and proceed to decode the many musical references in a selection of her poems from the period c. 1861-1865, with a focus on her “golden year” of literary industry – 1862.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Nicole Panizza
By Nicole Panizza, University of Coventry

What role did music play in Emily Dickinson’s life? While scholars have investigated countless aspects of  Dickinson’s life and literary output, there has been a surprising lack of inquiry into the role of music. While she was renowned as a poet of contemporary vision and sensibility, it is less well-known that  Dickinson was successfully trained in the fundamentals of music practice and theory, and reached an impressively high standard of technical agility and nuance. Further, she was also exposed to church music and hymnal in her formative years. Despite Dickinson existing within a conservative domestic environment, she created her poems and possibly also her letters based on a progressive  internal musical script, or musical roadmap.

Dickinson's Music Book, Houghton Library, Harvard
Dickinson's Music Book, Houghton Library, Harvard University

The musical qualities of Dickinson’s work derive from the musical influences that shaped her prosody, the syntactical and metrical qualities of her terse poetic lines, as well as the extensive role of music and musical instruments within the symbolic structures of her thought. Her writing generates a unique music of its own, which goes beyond the adaptation of existing musical styles. Carolyn Cooley observes:

The vibrant and throbbing rhythms and sounds, which Dickinson incorporates into many of her poems and letters testify to her rare ability to convey profound concepts in musical form, nuance and terminology. … [music] emanates from the depths of her own being to create contrapuntal melodies which achieve either an harmonic or a dissonant whole.

In Dickinson’s own words, from a letter to Elizabeth Holland about 1872:

In adequate Music there is a Major and a Minor –  (L370).

The human condition can be in a major key of exhilaration or a minor key of depression, or, as is often the case, both in direct contrast with one another. In a revealing testimony to Dickinson’s musical impulse, Clara Newman Turner, a cousin, extends the theory that Dickinson thought musically: 

Her Opera was the trilling of the birds outside her window; – the buzzing of the bees – the flitting in and out of the butterflies in their gauzy costumes. The crickets, and the frogs, and the breeze in its orchestra.

This post offers an account of Dickinson’s relationship to and employment of musical reference, gesture and idiom. It begins with a brief outline of Dickinson’s musical training and her reaction to musical performance trends of the day, and proceeds to decode the many musical references in a selection of her poems from the period c. 1861-1865, with a focus on her “golden year” of literary industry – 1862.

“New Music”

Springfield Republican, June 21, 1862

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

Secretary of War under Lincoln (1814-1869)
Edwin Stanton (1814-1869), Secretary of War under Lincoln

“This week has been one of unusual quiet. There has been no battle and no important movement that has been made known to the public. In the matter of slaves freed by the war, things are getting straightened out. Secretary Stanton informs Congress that Gen. Hunter has had no orders to enlist and arm the slaves, and has not informed the war department that he has gone into such an enterprise. It is likely that the enterprise will not be interfered with and that Gen. Hunter will be allowed to make the negroes useful in any way he can.”

Religious Intelligence, page 1
“Complaint has been made at the war department that a large number of army chaplains are absent from their regiments. At this time, when their ministrations seem particularly desirable, they are visiting their families, loitering in the cities, or lecturing upon their marvelous war experiences. With the feeling in Congress touching the office of chaplain, many members thinking it rather ornamental than useful, it behooves these gentlemen to speedily return to their posts, or they may find their occupation gone.”

Charles Sumner (1811-1874), Senator from Massachusetts and anti-slavery leader
Charles Sumner (1811-1874), Senator from Massachusetts and anti-slavery leader

A Letter from Mr. Sumner, page 2
“I say to you, stand by the administration. If need be, help it by word and act, but stand by it and have faith in it. I wish that you really knew the president and had heard the artless expression of his convictions on those questions [of slavery and abolition] which concern you so deeply. You might, perhaps, wish that he were less cautious, but you would be grateful that he is so true to all that you have at heart.”

Words for Wives, courtesy of Monthly Religious Magazine, page 6
“I believe the influence of a wife to be always, for good or for bad, very decided. There is not a woman living, unless she has forfeited all claim to her husband’s respect but is making her mark day by day upon his character. One thing, let her understand—worrying, fretting, fault-finding, direct and frequent harangues, ill-tempered slurs, anything that looks like passion, suspicion or jealousy, will do no good. These are the things a man cannot bear and have driven many into the things they were intended to prevent. She lacks judgment and prudence who shall ever indulge in these. Let her know that the strongest influences are those which are silent and indirect, that it is impossible for her to be in the right, gently, patiently, consistently, without its being felt. It may not be acknowledged today, or tomorrow, or ever; it may not do all she hoped it would. Counteracting influences may be too strong for that, but it is felt among the deepest and last things of life, even when he jeers and scoffs and strikes.”

Poetry, page 6: “The English Skylark” by Frederick Tennyson and “Coming Home” from Boston Transcript; Original Poetry, page 7: “At My Mother’s Grave” by J.E.H.

Books, Authors and Art, page 7

Mary A. Denison (1826-1911)
Mary A. Denison (1826-1911)

“We would advise anyone who wishes to attain celebrity by the exercise of a moderate amount of talent to become, if possible, the favorite of a clique; such a step is fatal to true greatness, but remarkably favorable to ambitious mediocrity. We are not sure how far those remarks will apply to The Master, a recent novel by Mrs. Mary A. Denison. It is a tale of music and musical people, such as should be written, read and reviewed by those who are versed in the technicalities of that divine and difficult art. As a mere narrative, it is an acceptable contribution to the popular stories of the day.”

Hampshire Gazette, June 24, 1862

New Music, page 1
“From Joseph Marsh, Book, News and Music dealer, we have received the following pieces of music, all excellent. It is published by Oliver Ditson & Co., Boston, and of course must be good. “Fox glove March,” “Cupid’s Eyes, a ballad,” “The Colleen Bawn” [listen below] “Serenade—Wake Lady Wake,” “Miss Lorimer Bell, a ballad,” “Levinia Waltz.” Sold by Joseph Marsh.

Amherst College, June 16th, page 1
“The event of the week with us has been the exercises ‘Class Day.’ The reputation of the speakers for the occasion, together with the kind smile of nature which gave us a delightful day, had the effect to draw together a very large assembly. The village church, in which the exercises took place, was very finely adorned with flowers and evergreens, and its every nook and corner breathed with fragrance. The music for the exhibition was furnished by the Schubert Club of Boston, who did themselves very great credit, and met with a hearty appreciation from the large and critical audience.”

On Mexico, page 2
“The French were badly defeated, and the Mexicans at last accounts were uniting against the invaders. It is possible they will be driven out of the country. It is hardly probably that Napoleon will withdraw and thus confess himself defeated, he will be more likely to appeal to the patriotism of the French people and send reinforcements. He probably wants something for his army to do, and he undoubtedly thinks is as easy for his French soldiers to capture Mexico and it was for America.”

page 2
The London Times publishes a letter from its New York correspondent to England very plainly that the United States will soon become ‘the greatest military and naval power in Christendom.’ In a few days after the Times editorially informed the people of Canada that they must defend themselves from American invasion as England cannot do it.”

Dickinson’s Exposure to Music and Jenny Lind

by Dr. Nicole Panissa, Coventry University

In the summer of 1862 Dickinson wrote to Dr. and Mrs. J. G. Holland stating:

My business is to sing … how do I know but cherubim, once, themselves, as patient, listened, and applauded her unnoticed hymn (L269).

It is, therefore, fair to conclude that Dickinson viewed her own literary voice as a musical one – drawing on both her extensive musical training, and a sub-conscious synergy with musical idiom and reference.

Existing records show that  Dickinson was well-versed and trained in both music theory and practice, specifically in piano and singing, as was commonplace for many young women of her age and social class in mid-19th century America. Her father supported her musical studies during her time at Mount Holyoke Seminary. At fourteen, Dickinson wrote to her friend Abiah Root:

I also was much pleased with the news [your letter] contained especially that you are taking lessons on the “piny”, as you always call it, but remember not to get on ahead of me. Father intends to have a Piano very soon. How happy I shall be when I have one of my own (L 6, 7 May 1845).

Dickinson’s wish soon came true. That year, her father bought a handsome rosewood piano with ornately carved legs, manufactured by Hallett Davis and Company of Boston.

Dickinson's piano, Emily Dickinson Museum
Dickinson's piano, Emily Dickinson Museum

In September, Dickinson wrote again to Abiah,

I am taking piano lessons and getting along very well with them…now I have a piano. … I am very happy (L 8 25 September).

Records suggest that over a period of some six years, Dickinson actively engaged with daily piano practice, primarily based on the Bertini Method, a popular methodology of the day, resulting in a level of prowess that was deemed advanced, even by today’s standards.

Both family and neighbors regarded Dickinson as an expert improviser. Richard Sewall recounts that her cousin John Graves described her late night improvisations as “heavenly music.” When he stayed over with his cousins, he would be wakened from his sleep by Dickinson’s music making. She explained the next morning: “I can improvise better at night.”

Dickinson’s cousin, Clara Newman Turner, whose recollection of the poet Sewall reprints, also recalled that

before seating herself at the piano Emily covered the upper and lower octaves so that the length of the keyboard might correspond to that of the old-fashioned instrument on which she had learned to play.

And George Boziwick recounts how MacGregor Jenkins, another neighbor, noted in his memoir that:

[Dickinson] went often across the lawn to her brother’s house. It was through him, and his handsome wife – the ‘Sue’ of her letters and messages, that she kept in touch with the life of her circle, and to a considerable extent with the village and the world. It was here that she would fly to the piano, if the mood required, and thunder out a composition of her own which she laughingly but appropriately called “The Devil,” and when her father came, lantern in hand to see that she reached home in safety, she would elude him and dart through the darkness to reach home before him. This was pure mischief and there was much of it in her.

The proposition that, in artistic terms, Dickinson proceeded from not only a musical but performative perspective is supported by her finding freedom in thought and expression via an improvisatory musical language. Her choice to improvise at night, potentially based on well-known jigs, reels and patriotic songs of the time, demonstrates her desire to find release within boundary: to explore ways in which her innate sense of musical gesture, placement, breath, silence and cadence in performance terms could potentially inform her own poetic practice.

Despite a growing immersion in her literary practice, Dickinson nevertheless retained a musical ethos, transferring her practical musical skills to a more metaphoric one. Carolyn Cooley argues:

Melodic strains and musical references pervade her poems, providing unusually appropriate figurative language to express joyous and plaintive moods … To an astonishing degree, the pulsating rhythms and sounds which Dickinson orchestrates in hundreds of her poems testify to her rare ability to convey profound concepts in musical terminology. Sometimes, the very air around her seems filled with music, and the songs of the birds either lift her exalted spirit or trouble her downcast soul.

Jenny Lind (1820-1887)
Jenny Lind (1820-1887)

While Dickinson utilized the security that her strategically-designed domestic domain provided, she was nevertheless seduced by the exotic and unpredictable energy of live performance. After attending a concert by the famous 19th century soprano, Jenny Lind, in Boston in May 1851, 20 year old Dickinson became enchanted not only with Lind’s vocal range and technical abilities, but perhaps more importantly, with her adopted performance persona. She wrote in a letter to her brother Austin:

How we all loved Jenny Lind, but not accustomed oft to her manner of singing didn’t [sic] fancy that so well as we did her – no doubt it was very fine – but take some notes from her “Echo”- the Bird songs from the “Bird Sing” and have some of her curious trills, and I’d rather have a Yankee. Herself, and not her music, was what we seemed to love – she has an air of exile in her mild blue eyes, and a something sweet and touching in her native accent which charms her many friends (L 46, 6 July).

Judith Pascoe argues that Dickinson found a comparative conduit for performative expression through viewing Lind’s performance:

The Jenny Lind phenomenon provides a rewarding context in which to place Dickinson’s performance poems, suggesting a highly theatrical Dickinson whose refusal to place her poems before a broad audience had more to do with the vagaries of the marketplace than with a reluctance to perform. Lind provided Dickinson with an important – if ultimately disappointing – model of female self-fashioning. The several ways in which Lind’s public persona, and Dickinson’s private and poetic versions coincide suggest that Dickinson’s relatively brief encounter with Lind had a complex and enduring impact on her conception of herself as an artist.

For the musician and performer, Pascoe’s assertions offer an important insight when looking to engage with, analyze, and perform musical settings of Dickinson’s poetry and letters. The following section of poetry discusses my own critical engagement, as a practicing musician and performer, with a sample collection of Dickinson’s poems that feature musical references.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Nicole PanizzaNicole Panizza

The examples I offered in the poems section, while apt but by no means conclusive,  demonstrate the various ways Dickinson championed the medium of music as a primary inspiration and informant of her poetic process.  Dickinson’s personal music folio also offers the reader a unique window into her musical preferences; it contains scores that, in many instances, require not only an advanced piano technique and sophisticated level of performance and virtuosity, but also demonstrate a diverse representation of musical style and genre. Editorial markings found in many of these manuscripts support the notion that she was exposed to a sustained and determined level of expert music instruction, notably during her formative years. Spanning 484 pages, her selections were somewhat unusual for the time.

As a direct result of a surge in the technical development of the piano and interest in the piano as a home-based instrument, there was increased production and representation of solo and duet-based piano repertoire in personal music folios of Dickinson's time. What is interesting to note is that while Emily Dickinson did include standard piano fare of her day, including piano transcriptions of larger operatic and symphonic works, her tastes were predominantly centered on popular music of the time: Irish, Scottish and English folk song, patriotic ballads, minstrel songs and piano transcriptions of dances such as waltzes, quick steps and reels.

My research has been born out of my desire, as a professional vocal accompanist and coach, to explore and promote the art of song preparation and performance as a viable means of expressing the veiled emotional contours rooted in  Dickinson’s poetry and letters. By means of recorded performance, analysis and critical reflection, I have investigated both the musical embodiment of these contours and the specifics of narrative development within selected musical examples. Time and time again, I have been systematically drawn to Dickinson’s assumption of the role of musician, composer and performer; the way the interaction between these “players” in her drama of self is reflected and expressed in musical terms, and how both the composer and, ultimately, performer are inspired to then interpret her work through their own artistic filters.

It was this unexpected discovery that led me to a series of questions.

How do we read Dickinson? How does a composer read her work? How does a performer read the dual narrative of Dickinson and composer?

My work to date has sought to give insight into both Dickinson and the extraordinary response that she elicits within musicians and composers who are drawn to her writing. It is my intention that this research will ultimately establish a new forum for the way in which we read, hear and perform the work of Emily Dickinson.

bio: Nicole Panizza is an acclaimed UK-based vocal accompanist, coach and scholar. She was awarded her Doctor of Music degree in 2014 (Royal College of Music, London), and is a past recipient of an International Fulbright Award, in support of visiting research fellowships at Harvard University and
Manhattan School of Music. Nicole has worked for Opera Australia, the Cologne and Covent Garden Opera Awards, and as Education Manager for The Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Her teachers have included Roger Vignoles and Malcolm Martineau. Recent research includes the internationally acclaimed album Nature with New-York based soprano Jane
Sheldon, key lectures and presentations (Singapore, Oxford, Cambridge), and chamber recitals (Vancouver, New York, Paris, Boston and Philadelphia).

Current ventures include an album with critically-acclaimed soprano Nadine Benjamin, featuring premiere performances of Dickinson-inspired song cycles by Juliana Hall, Ella Jarman-Pinto, John Gibson, and Luigi Zaninelli; an inter-medial performance project based on fragment manuscripts of Emily Dickinson with Prof. Suzie Hanna, Dr.
Sally Bayley, and renowned folk artist Hannah Sanders; a digital archive showcasing practice-led approaches to the performance and study of Dickinson’s poetry and letters, and an international song project showcasing critical examples of American war, memoriam and remembrance.

Nicole is a founding member of the International Zerere Arts Foundation, chair of the UK-based opera company OperaCoast; and a board member of the London Song Festival, and the Arts and Humanities
Council, Emily Dickinson International Society (EDIS). Recent posts include Visiting Research Fellowships (Rothermere American Institute and Faculty of Music, University of Oxford), and Research Summit Fellow, The Orpheus Instituut (Ghent, Belgium). She currently holds the positions of Senior
Lecturer in Music (Coventry University) and Research Associate (Oxford Song Network, TORCH – The Oxford Centre in the Humanities).
Further information can be found at



Cooley, Carolyn. The Music of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Letters: A Study of Imagery and Form. McFarland & Company, 2003, 25.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 270.

Hampshire Gazette, June 24, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  21, 1862


Boziwick, George. “'My Business is to Sing': Emily Dickinson's Musical Borrowings.” Journal of the Society for American Music 8, 02 (May 2014): 130 – 166.

Cooley, Carolyn. The Music of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Letters: A Study of Imagery and Form. McFarland & Company, 2003, 25.

Pascoe, Judith. “The House Encore Me So: Emily Dickinson and Jenny Lind.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 1, 1 Spring 1992: 1-18, 2.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 406, 272.


June 11-17, 1862: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Kirstyn Leuner

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

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

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

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

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

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

the epic poem of the literary woman herself.

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

“The Woman that Writes”


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

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

Verbal Foundlings, page 2

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

Civilization in Africa and in Dixie, page 2

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

The Woman That Writes, page 6

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

Poetry, page 6

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

Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862

Immediate Emancipation, page 2

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

The Atlantic Monthly, June 15, 1862

“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

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

Harper’s Monthly, June 1862, page 123

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

“Her Unmentioned Mourner”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Kirstyn Leuner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Atlantic Monthly, June 15, 1862

Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862.

Springfield Republican, June 14, 1862

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

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

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

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

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