May 21-27, 1862: “Eastern Spirit”

This week, following on several posts exploring Dickinson’s garden politics, we explore her engagement with Eastern thought, especially the ancient Chinese philosophy of Daoism and Chan (also spelled Ch’an or Zen) Buddhism, which developed from it, and the aesthetics that flow from them.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Woon Ping Chin
Sources

It still seems important to recognize and celebrate the boldness and courage of Emily Dickinson in the face of persistent mythologies that reduce her to the status of a quaint, reclusive, heart-broken spinster. And so, in some of our first posts, we examined Dickinson’s explorations of  themes of agency and power, like entitlement and choosing. This week, however, following on several posts exploring Dickinson’s garden politics, we explore her engagement with Eastern thought,  especially the ancient Chinese philosophy of Daoism and Chan (also spelled Ch’an or Zen) Buddhism which developed from it, and the aesthetics that flow from these schools of thought.

Coincidentally, May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM) in the United States, so this  theme seems even more appropriate. The influence of an “Eastern spirit” on Dickinson produces a different, though not, we would argue (in the feminist spirit of both/and), incompatible kind of ontology, which to Western eyes can look like “blandness,” the opposite of boldness.

Cover of guidebook to the museum, 1845
Cover of guidebook to the museum, 1845

Scholars have begun to investigate Dickinson’s involvement with Eastern thought and how she learned about it. In the Biography section, we will detail  several trips she made to Boston in the 1840s and 1850s, a town with a long history of trade with China, There she visited the newly opened Chinese Museum and even met a recovering opium eater! As Cristanne Miller shows and we discussed several weeks ago, New Englanders were fascinated with the Orient and things eastern, which   began in the 1840s as translations of Buddhist texts in English appeared, and peaked in the 1850-60s. Several of the magazines that the Dickinson family read regularly carried stories about the East and introductions to Buddhist thought.

Another possible source of influence were the homegrown Transcendental writers, Emerson and Thoreau, who read Eastern works, like the Bhagavad Gita, and borrowed and adapted some of their core ideas about the centrality of contemplation, stillness, receptiveness, nature as a model, self-denial, detachment, and non-possession.

However Dickinson absorbed the ideas of Eastern philosophy, she applied them to her poetic explorations about selfhood, nature, theories of language and representation, and formal, aesthetic choices. It is easy to see how her short poems and habitual compression resemble the Japanese poetic form of haiku. But it is more startling to realize that we can understand her many poems about renunciation, for example, not only in terms of romantic heartbreak but as a stage in the Buddhist journey towards  “liberation.” A summary of Eastern thought, which Dickinson might have read, called this state “annihilation:”

that all things originated in nothing, and will revert to nothing again. Hence annihilation is the summit of bliss; and nirupan, nirvana, or nonentity, the grand and ultimate anticipation of all.

We can only imagine how thrilled Dickinson would have been to find a philosophy and practice that could deliver her from the world of illusion!

“The grand struggle of the war has not yet come off.”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Springfield Republican May 24, 1862, page 1

Review of the Week: “Progress of the War.” 

The march to Richmond has been found more difficult than it had been popularly estimated. Continued rains have made the usually bad road almost impassable, and as our army nears the confederate capital it enters the region of miserable swamps with which the city is environed, and through which a great deal of road has to be actually built. … The rebels thus seem to have the ability to concentrate at Richmond all their forces in Virginia, and to meet Gen McClellan with superior numbers. Notwithstanding this, the known demoralization of a large portion of the rebel army, and the assured caution and skill of our commanders, give great confidence of success in the approaching contest.

“The General Situation:”

General David Hunter (1802-1886)
General David Hunter (1802-1886)

The special agitation of the week has grown out of an order by Gen Hunter, of the department of the South, declaring all the slaves free in his department—South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The only reason stated by him for this order was that slavery is inconsistent with martial law in order to prevent certain government agents from abusing the negroes. … It was manifest, however, to all sane men that the president could do no otherwise than recall and annul Gen Hunter’s order, which he did in a proclamation, in which he stated that he reserves to himself as commander-in-chief, the decision of the question whether he shall resort to this measure, and when and how.

New England Affairs: “A warm term, a cool morning and showers of rain have diversified the weather and considerably benefited vegetation in general. The country looks as beautiful as the most blooming bride.”

FROM BOSTON. From Our Own Correspondent. “The publishers of the  Atlantic give their readers twelve extra pages of reading matter in the June number; so they may be pardoned for printing Mr. F. G. Tuckerman’s sonnet, which is probably the worst sonnet ever written, and liable to be printed among the curiosities of literature as such. I have read the conclusion of “The South Breaker” [by Harriet Spofford], which is very fine. “Walking” by Henry Thoreau, is natural and breezy … There is no risk in praising Mr Higginson’s essay, “The Health of our Girls.” There is a piece by Whittier, commemorative of the abolition of slavery at the national capital; a fine poem by Alice Carey, entitled “An order for a picture,”one by Rose Terry,—whose stories are so good—and Mr Lowell’s Biglow paper, entitled “Sumthin’ in the Pastoral Line,” which is far better than anything he has given us before, in the present series. … the conclusion, being the sound and salutary advice communicated to Hosea by the old Pilgrim father, who came to him in a dream …”  Signed Warrington.

Original Poetry, page 6
“The Burial at Sea,” in the ballad measure by F. H. C.
“The Conflict of Ages” by B. Hathaway in 6 line stanzas of iambic tetrameter rhyming abbaab. [We found this title in The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, Volume 4].
“The Old Story” by Chauncey Hickox (1837-1905) in iambic tetrameter couplets. [Hickox, originally from Ohio but married in Connecticut, enlisted with the Union forces in October 1862.]

Tribute to a Massachusetts Woman.— Mrs Dall, in her admirable book entitled “Historical Pictures Retouched,” pays tribe to the patience and thoroughness of a lady astronomer” Maria Mitchell: “Women are also more patient, thorough, and observant of small facts than man. …”

Genius and Labor.  This short piece mentions three people, all male: Alexander Hamilton, Mr Webster and Demosthenes.

“Daisies” reprinted from the Boston Transcript

DaisiesHampshire Gazette May 27, 1862, page 1

Leads off with three poems:
Written for the Gazette and Courier, “Prayer for the Union,” Tune—Old Hundred, and signed Newbern, N.C. April. E. W. F.

“New England’s Dead” by Isaac McLellan: 

On every hill they lie;
On every field of strife, made red
By bloody victory.

Written for the Gazette and Courier, “Passing Away” by E. A. W. also about the war dead, and written from “Hospital, Northampton, May, 1862.

“Facts about Manure.”

Farmers are beginning to appreciate the value of manure. Only a few years since, it was difficult for keepers of horses in this and other cities to sell a load of manure, or even get it drawn from their stables without charge. … but now … it is with the greatest difficulty we can obtain enough in the spring to make hotbeds, while for other purposes we are compelled to resort to guano.

Page 2 Notes of the Week: “The grand struggle of the war has not yet come off.”

How Massachusetts Responds. “Great Enthusiasm.” A dispatch from Boston says the call upon the volunteer militia of Massachusetts for active service is being gloriously responded to. The enthusiasm of April, 1861, is renewed.”

"Slavery, as viewed by Great Southern Statesmen."
Jefferson— “I tremble for my country, when I reflect, that God is just.” In his Ordinance of 1787, approved by Congress unanimously, it was declared there should be no “slavery” in the United States after the year 1800.
Washington—“There is no man living, who wishes more sincerely, than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.”
Madison—“This evil has preyed upon the very vitals of the Union”
Randolph—“I envy neither the heart no the head of that man from the North, who rise here to defend slavery on principle.”
 Clay—“Never will I aid in admitting one rood of free Territory to the everlasting curse of human bondage.”

“The Chinese Museum”

According to Hiroko Uno, when Dickinson was fifteen, she visited the Chinese Museum in Boston in Fall 1846, while staying with her beloved Norcross cousins. The museum opened in 1844, after the signing of the Wanghsia Treaty, the first official trading agreement between the US and China, negotiated and signed by Caleb Cushing, the US congressman from Massachusetts, who was an acquaintance, if not friend, of Edward Dickinson, then a State Senator.

Caleb Cushing (1800-1879)
Caleb Cushing (1800-1879)

Based on the museum’s catalogue, Uno describes in some detail what Dickinson would have seen there, and we also have Dickinson’s own account of this trip from a letter she wrote to her good friend Abiah Root dated September 8, 1846:

The Chinese Museum is a great curiosity. There are an endless variety of Wax figures made to resemble the Chinese & dressed in their costume. Also articles of chinese manufacture of an innumerable variety deck the rooms. Two of the Chinese go with this exhibition. One of them is a Professor of music in China & the other is teacher of a writing school at home. They were both wealthy & not obliged to labor but they were also Opium Eaters & fearing to continue the practice lest it destroyed their lives yet unable to break the "rigid chain of habit" in their own land They left their family's & came to this country. They have now entirely overcome the practice. There is something peculiarly interesting to me in their self denial (L13).

A bit later in the letter, Dickinson brings up the question of Christian conversion, which, she says somewhat tartly that Root has “so frequently & so affectionately called my attention [to] in your letters.”  Dickinson will face and insistently resist increasingly intrusive pressure to convert when she enters Mount Holyoke Seminar the following year and comes within the purview of its redoubtable headmistress, Mary Lyons. To Root, Dickinson responds:

But I feel that I have not yet made my peace with God. I am still a s[tran]ger – to the delightful emotions which fill your heart. I have perfect confidence in God & his promises & yet I know not why, I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die.

This letter reveals Dickinson’s early exposure to Chinese culture and religion, which had a lasting effect on her thinking and her poetry. Uno asserts that

Those experiences in the Chinese Museum were so impressive that images of the East resonated for decades in her adult imagination [and were also] deeply connected with her own religious conflicts of faith, especially her difficulty accepting Christ.

The letter reveals her fascination with a central tenet of Buddhism—self-denial—as well as her unwillingness to give up the world in a Christian evangelical sense, and to find her ultimate “reward” in the afterlife. Exploring poems on these themes will allow us to see how Dickinson managed these seemingly competing feelings in 1862, a  time in her life when her struggles with conversion (though not belief) were settled, she had accepted a deep form of renunciation, and was in the midst of an immense period of poetic productivity.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Chin Woon Ping

Woon Ping ChinRecluse

She wears white, the color of Death.
Tight-laced, hair pulled back,
Her Mind roams all realms.

The rhythm a regular hymn—
The form a joy to punctuate—
With dashes.

Success is never counted
By one who practices
Non-attachment.

CWP 

bio: Chin Woon Ping has published books of poetry, essays, translations and plays. She has performed her work in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, China and Southeast Asia and recorded her songs with Scratch and Bite Records. She teaches at Dartmouth College and lives in Vermont.

Sources:

Overview

Uno, Hiroko. “Emily Dickinson’s Encounter with the East: Chinese Museum in Boston.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, 17, 1 (2008): 43-67, 52.

Takeda, Masako. “Emily Dickinson and Japanese Aesthetics.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, 22, 2 (2013): 26-45.

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

—–. “Dickinson’s ‘Power to die’ from a Transcultural Perspective.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, 22, 2 (2013) 65-85.

History

Hampshire Gazette, May 27, 1862

Springfield Republican, May 24, 1862

Biography

Uno, Hiroko. “Emily Dickinson’s Encounter with the East: Chinese Museum in Boston.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, 17, 1 (2008): 43-67, 61-62.

 

May 7-13, 1862: Wanderlust

During the month of May, Dickinson mourned the absence of her dear friend, the Springfield Republican editor, Samuel Bowles, who had embarked on a long European tour to improve his faltering health. This week, we explore Dickinson’s complex, intense relationship with Bowles, and the pressures placed on it, through the theme of foreign travel and Dickinson’s fascination with the East.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Joe Waring
Sources

“Telescoping Places”

We shall give you a gossiping personal letter occasionally, but a tour for health will not cheat its purpose with writing the oft repeated story of foreign travel.

              —Samuel Bowles, from a letter printed in the Springfield Republican, May 10th, 1862

During the month of May, Dickinson mourned the absence of her dear friend, Springfield Republican editor, Samuel Bowles, who had embarked on a long European tour to improve his faltering health. This week, we explore Dickinson’s complex, intense relationship with Bowles, and the pressures placed on it, through the theme of foreign travel. Though Dickinson didn’t stray far from the Homestead, she eagerly consumed news from abroad in the Republican, in her readings, and in her correspondences. She looked forward to letters from Bowles, some of which she read in the Republican, where he offered rich and sharply observed descriptions of England,  Ireland and the Continent.

Their relationship and correspondence underscore a fascination with travel, otherness, and foreign places that Dickinson exhibited in much of her writing, which is often expansive, reaching far beyond the narrow confines of Amherst life. Mary Kuhn points out that Dickinson frequently compresses vast distances into short lines or tight stanzas. For example, in 1860, Dickinson wrote:

Kashmir Valley
Kashmir Valley

If I could bribe them with a Rose
I’d bring them every flower that grows
From Amherst to Cashmere!     (F176A)

We are swept from the Homestead to the Kashmir Valley near the Himalayas on the Indian subcontinent in one line. That flowers are the means of such compression points to Dickinson’s consciousness of the international mobility of plants, a theme we explored last week.

Cristanne Miller is particularly interested in Dickinson’s images of Asia and the East and finds that her “use of the idioms of Orientalism and foreign travel” in her poetry reaches a peak between 1860 and 1863. Miller explains:

Such images were not unusual at the time; Orientalism was in its heyday during the 1850’s in the United States. Dickinson both extended this discourse and critiqued it in her poems. She was part of a community that perceived its material pleasures, religious obligations, and republican principles, if not identity itself, in relation to global exchange, including commerce with … the “Orient” or “Asia.”

Dickinson read about the East, Asia, and the lands of the Bible in essays in the Atlantic and Harper’s, and her family library had copies of The Koran and several accounts of expeditions to places in the East. In her letters to her brother Austin, Dickinson teased him about his passionate reading of the Arabian Nights, which was immensely popular at the time and fostered a stereotypical and colonialist image of the East as a land of luxury and sensuality (see Letters 19, 22)

Dickinson’s fascination with places and her ability to “telescope” space, in the words of Christine Gerhardt, has opened a new direction in Dickinson scholarship that unfixes her from a narrow confinement to the small town of Amherst and her local surroundings, instead highlighting her global and even planetary dimensions.

“The Wounded Heart”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 3
“Rev. Mr. Green, a colored local Methodist preacher, was five years ago sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment in Maryland, for having in his possession a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Numerous efforts have been made to secure his pardon, but without success until a few days since, when Gov. Bradford set him at liberty. He is required, however, to leave the state, and is already on his way to Canada.”

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 5
Williamsburg Evacuated. Details of Monday’s Operations. Advance Near Williamsburg, Monday evening, May 5th—To the Associated Press:—

When my dispatch was sent last evening that the indications were that our troops would occupy Williamsburg without much opposition.

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 5
Gen. McClellan Overtakes the Enemy.
The following was received at the war department Monday noon:—

Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, May 4th, 7 o’clock, p.m.—Our cavalry and horse artillery came up with the enemy’s rear guard in their entrenchments, about two miles this side of Williamsburg. A brisk fight ensued. … The enemy’s rear is strong, but I have force enough up there to answer all purposes. … The success is brilliant, and you may rest assured that its effects will be of the greatest importance. There shall be no delay in following up the enemy. The rebels have been guilty of the most murderous and barbarous conduct in placing torpedoes within the abandoned works, near wells and springs, near flag-staffs, magazines, telegraph offices … Fortunately, we have not lost many men in this manner—some four or five killed, and perhaps a dozen wounded. I shall make the prisoners remove them at their own peril. G.B. McClellan, Major General.

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 6 Poetry: “The Wounded Heart.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sweet, thou hast trod on a heart.
Pass! there’s a world full of men;
And women as fair as thou art
Must do such things now and then.

Thou only hast stepped unaware,—
Malice, no one can impute;
And why should a heart have been there
In the way of a fair woman’s foot?

It was not a stone that could trip,
Nor was it a thorn that could rend:
Put up thy proud underlip!
’Twas merely the heart of a friend.

And yet peradventure one day
Then, sitting alone at the glass,
Remarking the bloom gone away,
Where the smile in its dimplement was,

And seeking around thee in vain,
From hundreds who flattered before,
Such a word as, “Oh, not in the main
Do I hold thee less precious, but more!”

Thou’lt sigh, very like, on thy part,
“Of all I have known or can know,
I wish I had only that heart
I trod upon ages ago!”

                   —Mrs. Browning

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 7:  On A Rose.—Be An Epicure

I thank thee, fair maid, for this beautiful rose,
Fresh with dew from the favorite bowers;
In the bloom of the garden no rival it knows,
For the rose is the beef-steak of flowers.

“The Heart Wants What it Wants”

By April of 1862, Samuel Bowles had embarked on his trip to Europe, and on May 10th, Emily Dickinson—who was keenly affected by his absence—caught wind of his whereabouts in the Springfield Republican. His remarks, written from off the coast of Liverpool while en route to Paris,  were printed alongside a set of letters from passengers aboard the Steamer China.

Samuel Bowles

Bowles had entered into Dickinson’s life four years earlier, in 1858, and became an important presence in Dickinson’s poems and correspondences. As biographer Richard Sewall notes, his place in her life is difficult to determine:

whether Bowles was at the exact center of it, or whether he was only a part of it, a catalyst in a mixing of many elements, cannot yet be said with certainty.

At any rate, Bowles was certainly someone to whom Dickinson addressed poems. Somewhere between 1861 and 1862—scholars disagree due to her shifting handwriting during this period—Dickinson wrote, “Dear Mr. Bowles,” accompanied by the following verse:

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To mind it!
How sweet it would have tasted!
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high
Except we dine on tiptoe!
Crumbs fit such little mouths –
Cherries – suit Robins –
The Eagle’s golden breakfast – dazzles them!
God keep his vow to “Sparrows,”
Who of little love – know how to starve!  (F195A, J690)

The last line, Sewall points out, could indicate Dickinson’s willingness, even her desire to “exist on whatever bit (crumb) of love he chooses to bestow on her.” Hungry for such a crumb, Dickinson would have read the correspondences published in the Republican, pleased to hear the descriptions of Bowles’ journey:

We land at Liverpool this noon, and the end of our 18th day. The Irish and English shores in sight yesterday and today are a contrast in their rich green verdure and advanced cultivation to those we left behind us in America, dotted even in New Jersey and on Long Island with snow, or the barrenness and deadness of winter. The season here seems like the last of our May. We spend but a few days in England now, going over to Paris for May, and returning to Britain for the riper and richer June. We shall give you a gossiping personal letter occasionally, but a tour for health will not cheat its purpose with writing the oft repeated story of foreign travel. S. B.

Interestingly, the letter closes a temporal gap, as if to reduce the geographic distance between Bowles and his reader. “The season here seems like the last of our May,” he writes, likening England in late April to New England’s May. Thus, he and Dickinson occupy the same clime despite being separated by continents, and because the letter wouldn’t be published until May in the Springfield Republican, the “now” and the climate of the letter converge with the “now” and the climate of Amherst, upon Dickinson's reading.

Around the same time the Republican printed  Bowles’ letter, Dickinson wrote to his wife, Mary Bowles, expressing sympathy for her husband’s absence.

When the best is gone I know that other things are not of consequence. The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care (L262).

Notably, the letter reads as if in two voices. Dickinson refers to “the heart” in general, as if to imply Mary’s, but also her own. The doubling continues and intensifies when she writes,

Not to see what we love, is very terrible – and talking – doesn’t ease it – and noting does – but just itself.

The peculiar use of “we” in a letter ostensibly about another woman’s husband stands out, as Dickinson co-opts Mary’s longing for her husband as her own.

As we discuss in the poetry section for this week, one indication of Bowles’ influence is Dickinson’s fascination with “foreignness,” place names, and “exotic” references during this period. Cristanne Miller points out that Dickinson had some knowledge of Asia, and often criticized Western attitudes of racism and colonialist “Orientalism.” As exemplified in Bowles’ letter from the China Steamer, “news about foreign lands was delivered daily to the Dickinson household through the pages of the Springfield Republican.” Dickinson’s isolation in Amherst, intensified by Bowles’ departure for Europe, was, perhaps, partly remedied by identifying “ontologically” with “epistemologies of foreignness” that brought her ever closer to him.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Joe Waring

Joseph WaringBy the time Dickinson was writing in the year of the “white heat,” interest in “Orientalism” had reached its peak in the American cultural imagination (Miller 118). The “Orient,” as Edward Said notes in Orientalism, his groundbreaking work of postcolonial theory, is the

place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring image of the Other

—and an interest in identity-formation in opposition to those images played out throughout the West (Said 1). Moreover, Said considers “Orientialism” to be not only a set of oppositions and ideas, but a

mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles,

all of which would become fodder for Dickinson’s poetic lexicon (Said 2). In fact, Miller locates about seventy different references to the “Orient” in Dickinson’s poetry, as she played her role in a long-established tradition of evoking “Oriental” tropes in writing—a discourse she ultimately perpetuated as well as criticized (Miller 118-119). Understanding “Orientalism” in this way—as a discourse, Said contends, allows us to trace the

enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.

Dickinson’s poetry—in its frequent references and deep interest in the “Orient”—urgently calls to be understood as part of this process (Said 3).

Why was Dickinson so interested in the “Orient” in the first place? To start, she voraciously consumed the literature, news, and culture that she came into contact with. As Miller points out, “news about foreign lands was delivered daily to the Dickinson household through the pages of the Springfield Republican,” and she would have developed a deep interest in “foreignness” as her close friend, Samuel Bowles, set out for Europe in 1862, leaving her behind in Amherst. She also occupied a social milieu in which everyone else was fascinated by the “Orient,” too. New Englanders were constantly filling their homes with “knickknacks, the fine china dogs and cats, the pieces of oriental jade, the chips off the leaning tower of Pisa” (Tate 155). What’s more, Dickinson visited the Peter’s Chinese Museum in 1846, which documented the Anglo-Sino Opium War, spurring great interest in the use of narcotics (Li-hsin 9).

Among American writers, Dickinson was not alone in her invocation of “Orientalism.” Miller notes that “Emerson, Whittier, Bayard Taylor, Lydia Maria Child, and Whitman” were all deeply interested in “Asian scripture and literature” in a way that surpassed Dickinson (Miller 129). The transcendentalists in particular looked to “Asian philosophy and religion as a source of spiritual inspiration or knowledge” (129). Whitman, even more problematically, viewed “Asia as a natural partner to or goal of American westward expansion”—a form of U.S. imperialism that Dickinson largely avoided (130). Where the transcendentalists sought to incorporate the “Orient” both into their spirituality, philosophy, and—imperialistically—their geography, Dickinson saw Asia as an “unknown” that could inspire insight into her understanding of her own context.

While Dickinson’s use of “Orientalist” references was in line with historical trends and interests, what she read and learned about the “Orient” may have expanded her ability to think about contemporary issues at home, thus participating in what Said sees as a trend of oppositional identity formation. Dickinson’s 1864 poem, “Color – Caste – Denomination” (F836), which in its title alone addresses three pressing issues of American society, makes use of “Oriental” imagery to comment on contemporary social and political issues:

Color – Caste – Denomination – 

These – are Time's Affair – 

Death's diviner Classifying 

Does not know they are -

As in sleep – all Hue

forgotten – 

Tenets – put behind – 

Death's large – Democratic

fingers 

Rub away the Brand -

If Circassian – He is careless – 

If He put away 

Chrysalis of Blonde – or Umber – 

Equal Butterfly -

They emerge from His Obscuring – 

What Death – knows so well – 

Our minuter intuitions – 

Deem unplausible

Race, socioeconomic status, and religion—topics that are well-documented in Dickinson’s poetry, as well as in the blog posts for several of the weeks in 1862—were important to Dickinson’s understanding of the “Orient,” just as they were in the United States; they are, universally speaking, “Time’s Affair,” unified across continents insofar as “Death’s diviner Classifying / Does not know they are.” Death’s “large – Democratic / fingers” are democratic precisely because they touch everyone, everywhere. “If Circassian,” she seems to ask, the effect is the same as if the question were, “If from Amherst?” The poem makes frequent reference to skin tone and race: “color,” “Hue,” “Blonde,” “Umber”—a lexicon that maintains its urgency whether in reference to American abolition or the Circassians.

What, then, do we make of these references? As Said points out, the academic and literary traditions of “Orientalism” are not innocuous; “European culture,” he points out, “gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (Said 3). The natural consequence of identity formation that opposes itself to an “other,” Said continues, is a “flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand” (7). As such, there is much to be criticized, examined, and understood about conceptions of “otherness” and “foreignness” in Dickinson’s frequent evocation of the “Orient.” Miller offers some consolation in that, though Dickinson certainly participated in a troubling and long history of “Orientalism,” she did so with her characteristic empathy:

Instead, Dickinson’s Orientalism borrows from and rewrites the symbolic geographies of her era. While popular geographies portrayed people in relation to stereotyped coordinates of the South, North, East, and West, her representations of Asians were without exception sympathetic, even if romantically or ambivalently so (Miller 130).

Sources

Hsu, Li-hsin. “Emily Dickinson's Asian Consumption.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 22, no. 2, 2013, pp. 1-25,135.

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 118-146.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Tate, Allen. "New England Culture and Emily Dickinson." The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism Since 1890. Ed. Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1965.

bio: Joe Waring is a Dartmouth ’18, who studied English, Italian, and Linguistics. He came by Dickinson like most, in his high school classroom, where he memorized “It Feels A Shame To Be Alive,” and was happy to revisit Dickinson in Professor Schweitzer’s class, “The New Emily Dickinson: After The Digital Turn.” His favorite Dickinson poem is, unquestionably, “The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants” (J1298, F1350).

Sources
Overview
Gerhardt, Christine. “Often seen–but seldom felt”: Emily Dickinson’s Reluctant Ecology of Place.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 15.1 (2006): 73.

Kuhn, Mary. “Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility.” ELH, 85:1 (Spring 2018), 143-44.

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 118-20.

This week in History:
Springfield Republican,  Sat May 310 1862.

This week in Biography:
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 119.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980,  492-93.

 

April 9-15, 1862: Edward Dickinson

This week’s post takes a look at the influence Edward Dickinson had on Emily Dickinson’s life and writing. Having grown up in a family facing financial trouble, Edward Dickinson governed his own household with a firm hand, kept a tight domestic economy, and imposed his values on his family members. While Emily Dickinson respected her father greatly, and tended to obey the rules he set for her, she kept her poetry well out his reach.

Edward Dickinson

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Hannah Matheson
Sources/Further Reading

“He buys me many Books – but begs me not to read them”

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Though Edward Dickinson may have bought Emily Dickinson many books, his role in her life was more complicated than that of a fatherly didact. One such book he purchased was Letters on Practical Subjects to a Daughter by William B. Sprague, a sort of etiquette manual of orderly conduct for women. At the very least, this gift shows some fatherly desire to control, to reign in his daughter's intellect. Edward also bought her Dr. Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughter, another advice manual. Writing to Higginson, Emily Dickinson comments that her father “buys me many Books” but knows little about her and how she occupied her time, because he is “too busy with his Briefs” (L261). Even when he was absent on business trips, the books he gave to his daughter were an attempt to maintain control over her conduct and shape her sense of social decorum.

That Edward Dickinson begged his daughter not to read books, fearing they  would “joggle the mind,” makes his gifts all the more curious. He certainly wasn’t afraid that she might internalize those instructive manuals on female conduct. He must have feared the effect other, perhaps literary and intellectual, books had on her—a father afraid that his daughter’s ever-growing intellect would break the belt he had strapped around her life.

Edward Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard. Houghton Library, Harvard University
Edward Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard. Houghton Library, Harvard University

This week’s post explores the influence Edward Dickinson had on Emily Dickinson’s life and writing. Having grown up in a family facing financial trouble, Edward Dickinson governed his own household with a firm hand, kept a tight domestic economy, and imposed his values on his family members. While Emily Dickinson respected her father greatly, and tended to obey the rules he set for her, she kept her poetry well out of his reach. She only mentioned him directly in one poem, “Where bells no more affright the morn” (F114), whic is based in fact: he would literally wake his children with a bell at an early hour. Still, he is largely absent from her poetry. Following the lead of Dickinson scholars, we’ve located him in other places: in her legal vocabulary, in her metaphors of domestic control, and in her notions of power.

“No more kid-glove policy”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Hampshire Gazette, April 15, responds to the battle of Shiloh on April 6-7th in southwestern Tennessee:

The best contested and most sanguinary battle that ever took place on this continent, occurred on Sunday and Monday of last week. The rebel forces, under Gens. Beauregard and S.E. Johnston, advanced from their fortified position at Corinth, evidently with the intention of defeating our army by piecemeal, and attacked that portion of it stationed at Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee. It was a complete surprise and during the first day our forces were defeated, and had it not been for the opportune arrival of reinforcements, the union army would have met with a most fatal reverse.

Springfield Republican, April 12, “Civil War in Cipher,” p. 4:

“A Cipher Despatch from Beauregard.—We have been shown a dispatch or message, in cipher, from Beauregard to some confederate in Washington, which, in addition to the ingenuity which characterizes the cipher, contains intrinsic evidence both as to its origin and the desperate means proposed by the rebel general for getting possession of the capital. It seems certain that arson and assassination were component parts of the chivalry of which we heard so much a year or so ago, and perhaps the publication of such a dispatch as this may modify the tender sensibility of those who adhere to the kid-glove policy in dealing with rebels who themselves stickle at nothing in prosecuting their traitorous schemes.”

Springfield Republican, April 12th, p. 5, Proclamation by the President:

“By the President of the United States of America—a Proclamation: It has pleased Almighty God to vouchsafe signal victories to the land and naval forces engaged in suppressing an internal rebellion, and at the same time to avert from our country the dangers of foreign intervention and invasion. It is therefore recommended to the people of the United States, that at their next weekly assemblages in their accustomed places of public worship, which shall occur after the notice of this proclamation shall have been received, they especially acknowledge and render thanks to our Heavenly Father for these inestimable blessings.”

The Amherst Cannon on display at the North Carolina Museum of History, 2012
The Amherst Cannon on display at the North Carolina Museum of History, 2012

Hampshire Gazette, April 15th: Edward Dickinson Makes the Paper

Presentation of Cannon.—The ceremony of presenting a six-pound brass cannon captured from the rebels at the battle of Newbern, by the 21st Mass. regiment, to the trustees of Amherst College, took place at Amherst yesterday. The occasion called together about two thousand people, who gathered in front of the college chapel building, where the ceremonies were held. The cannon is a beautiful piece. It bears the stamp of “U.S.,” and is believed to be one of the pieces captured from the federal army at Bull Run. … Hon. Edward Dickinson presided and introduced the speakers.

Atlantic Monthly, April 15, “Letter to a Young Contributor” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

My dear young gentleman or young lady,—for many are the Cecil Dreemes of literature who superscribe their offered manuscripts with very masculine names in very feminine handwriting,—it seems wrong not to meet your accumulated and urgent epistles with one comprehensive reply, thus condensing many private letters into a printed one. And so large a proportion of “Atlantic” readers either might, would, could, or should be “Atlantic” contributors also, that this epistle will be sure of perusal, though Mrs. Stowe remain uncut and the Autocrat go for an hour without readers.

How few men in all the pride of culture can emulate the easy grace of a bright woman’s letter!

Yet, if our life be immortal, this temporary distinction is of little moment, and we may learn humility, without learning despair, from earth’s evanescent glories. Who cannot bear a few disappointments, if the vista be so wide that the mute inglorious Miltons of this sphere may in some other sing their Paradise as Found? War or peace, fame or forgetfulness, can bring no real injury to one who has formed the fixed purpose to live nobly day by day.

“His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists”

The eldest of nine children, Edward Dickinson—Emily Dickinson’s father—was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1803 to an established family. His parents, Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, valued education and, despite financial difficulties, sent their son to Amherst Academy, Yale University, and Northampton Law School.

Equipped with a first-rate education and a traditional set of values, Edward Dickinson launched a successful career in law, was elected as a Representative to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1838, the National Whig Convention in Baltimore in 1852, and to the Congress of the United States as a Representative from the Tenth Massachusetts District in that same year. His successful career buoyed his stature in the Amherst community, and he governed the Dickinson household with a authoritative hand commensurate with his status as a prominent legal and political figure.

Even his personal life was touched by his ambitious resolve; in a letter to Emily Norcross, whom he would later marry, he wrote,

My life must be a life of business, of labor and application to the study of my profession.

His obsessive commitment to his career set in motion a precarious, and at times, distant relationship with his family, especially his eldest daughter, Emily Dickinson. As a politician, he was eager to bring a railroad to Amherst, an accomplishment that was met with

great rejoicing through this town and the neighboring [one],

according to Emily Dickinson in a letter to her brother Austin (L72). She admired his success, commenting later in the correspondence that

Father is really sober from excessive satisfaction, and bears his honors with a most becoming air.

Though Emily Dickinson clearly thought highly of her father, his conventional values and imposing authority strained their relationship. Writing to Austin, who was away at school, she expressed regretfully that she and her family

don’t have many jokes tho’ now, it is pretty much all sobriety, and we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that it’s pretty much all real life. … Father’s real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt! (L65).

Similar sentiments emerge in other correspondences. To Higginson, Dickinson wrote,

and Father, too busy with his Briefs – to notice what we do – He buys me many Books – but begs me not to read them – because he fears they joggle the mind (L261).

Their relationship was  one of contrasts: Edward Dickinson was supportive of her education yet wary of its effects, overbearing in his authority yet distant, and, as Emily withdrew from religious observance, Edward underwent a religious conversion in the revival in Amherst in 1850. Her tone about him is routinely marked by a regretful distance. In a letter to Joseph Lyman, she wrote:

My father seems to me often the oldest and the oddest sort of a foreigner. Sometimes I say something and he stares in a curious sort of bewilderment though I speak a thought quite as old as his daughter… And so it is, for in the morning I hear his voice and methinks it comes from afar & has a sea tone & there is a hum of hoarseness about [it] & a suggestion of remoteness as far as the isle of Juan Fernandez.

Richard Sewall, Dickinson's biographer, describes their relationship as follows:

Emily’s attitude toward her father, even as we have seen it so far, was compounded of many elements incompatible with fear. It developed early into an amused tolerance, a touch of condescension arising from an entirely justified sense of intellectual superiority, a tender devotion that made her delight in serving him in many ways, and later on into a deep, pervasive pity for his lonely and austere life.

Edward Dickinson died in Boston on June 16, 1874 shortly after speaking in the General Court, where he reportedly felt ill. Though  Dickinson occasionally commented on her relationship with her father while he was alive, her posthumous remarks are keenest. In a letter to Higginson in 1874, a month after Edward's passing, she reflects on the memories she has of her father (L418):

The last Afternoon that my Father lived, though with no premonition – I preferred to be with him, and invented an absence for Mother, Vinnie being asleep. He seemed peculiarly pleased as I oftenest stayed with myself, and remarked as the Afternoon withdrew, he “would like it to not end.

His pleasure almost embarrassed me and my Brother coming-I suggested they walk. Next morning I woke him for the train – and saw him no more.

His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.

I am glad there is Immortality-but would have tested it myself- before entrusting him.

Mr Bowles was with us–With that exception I saw none. I have wished for you, since my Father died, and had you an Hour unengrossed, it would be almost priceless. Thank you for each kindness.

My Brother and Sister thank you for remembering them.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Hannah Matheson


Hannah Matheso photo

Two Poems

SOTERIOLOGY

Salvation’s brutal logic. Our Father progenitor
of Munchausen by proxy: made us wrong
to be the one to fix broken. Fashioned
to fall. How’s that for self-
indulgence? His and mine,
I mean. Made in His image,
cheap facsimile that
I am, a mirror of ire. Anger is
unflattering. This is why we say
fear of God, and this is why
Sunday service finds me close-
fisted, fingernails carving red
crescents into my own palms,

but even if I gall I recognize
the architecture of a fine thing,
ornate scaffolding of psalms—
exquisite echolalia of call
and response, which is at least
an answer, even if it returns
in the sound of one’s own voice
whispering prayer, soothing
sleep along. What alternative
do I offer when, asked
a question, I can do nothing
but point to all my milk teeth
scattered on the floor?

LUST (II)

and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves –Dickinson

For so long, Emily, my body as a scaffold of loss: self-
portraiture a composite of leavable parts. Anatomy
predicated on negative space—skeleton defined
by the emptiness filling around it. My ribs so hungry,
bone stitches suturing air. So much nothing. So much
take it or leave it, as they wished. I did not want to tell you

about what I allowed this frame to weather.
My labia scoured by a whiskered mouth. Rawed down
until I swelled, bleeding rose—red spattering of cells
in my underwear. I took it like a moth pinned
to corkboard, wingspread, still. Another time,
a different pair of hands, also hungry… I yearned
my pelvis away from his looming need. Battering
ram of his fingers breaching my borders, somehow
he sowed longing, somehow I wanted him
to want me, the truth is I did

go back, as if searching for the pummeling. What
did I think I could wrest from another night
in that dank room? As simple as a dog returning, wanting
to be un-kicked. I keep running from, running to
this exacting metronome but and of course the jolts
of these pulses are like everything else
a familiar rhythm—heartthrums, footfalls, the same
frat house couch spring
it hurt it hurt it hurts

bio: Hannah Matheson is a member of the class of 2018 at Dartmouth College and was an English major concentrating in Creative Writing.  She studied poetry with Vievee Francis. She has edited for Mouth and The Stonefence Review, literary publications at Dartmouth, and sang in The Subtleties, an all-female a cappella group. . 

Overview

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001, 46.

History 

Atlantic Monthly, April 15, 1862.

Hampshire Gazette, April 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, April 12, 1862.

Biography

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

Martin, Wendy, ed. All Things Dickinson: an Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Greenwood, an Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard Univesity Press, 1974, 61. Print.

 

April 2-8, 1862: Publication

One of the most intriguing aspects of Dickinson’s poetry is that most of her almost eighteen-hundred poems were published posthumously. Ten of them (and one letter) made it into print during her lifetime, none under her own name. We explore why a prolific and ambitious poet with such close relationships with prominent editors chose not to publish during her lifetime, and her evolving feelings about print publication and fame.

 “Firmament to Fin”

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

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Publication

One of the most intriguing aspects of Dickinson’s poetry is that most of her almost eighteen-hundred poems were published posthumously. Ten of them (and one letter) made it into print during her lifetime, none under her own name. (For a list of these, see EDA’s “Resources.”) Some people think that Dickinson contacted the editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in order to sound him out about publishing her poetry. But in her third letter to him, written on June 7, 1862, Dickinson responded, rather coyly:

I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish”—that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin— (L265). 

We will see, however, in exploring Dickinson’s first two letters to Higginson later in this month that she did not always tell him the truth. In point of fact, her contacting him at all was triggered by her reading of his essay offering advice to young and potentially publishing writers.

Why would a poet with such close relationships with editors, such as Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican and Thomas Higginson of the Atlantic Monthly, choose not to publish during her lifetime? The question is complicated by the fact that several of Dickinson's poems did appear in the Springfield Republican—with varying degrees of her approval—and that she was already circulating poems to friends, family, and editors through correspondences.

A fascicle
A fascicle

What’s more, Dickinson edited her own poetry in a form of self-publication: she made fair copies, destroyed the worksheets, and bound more than 800 poems into 40 fascicles, as if intending that they should be read in the groups and order she chose and, perhaps, published in print posthumously.

One common explanation of her choice not to publish in print was that she was responding to the print industry’s tendency to edit, punctuate, reword, and modify poetry before it hit the press, without the consent of the author. We discussed this process in the post for February 26 – March 4 in which Dickinson’s poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” was renamed “The Sleeping,” heavily edited so that it conformed to conventional poetic norms, and published in the Springfield Daily Republican on March 1st, 1862.

Springfield Republican Still, Cristanne Miller argues that the “editing” argument—though clearly a concern for Dickinson—is insufficient to explain why so much of her poetry went unpublished. Miller points to two compelling reasons that go beyond Dickinson’s preoccupation with editorial interference. First, her most profound poems deal with matters like death, loss, and life in

familiar forms, working from the hymn and popular ballad-style poetry, and using the popular idiom.

Dickinson will balk when Higginson suggests that her poetic “gait” is “Spasmodic,” and resisted his advice to write in blank verse. This may indicate that poetry was a form of reflection for her, a way of working through deep questions of war, life, and time without concerning herself with an audience. In effect, the process of writing without the pressures and demands of publication allowed poetry to maintain its role of personal exploration and experimentation in her life.

Second, Dickinson likely found objectionable the way print publication implicated her poems as commodities in a larger market. This point becomes all the more urgent when considered in the context of slavery, a market in itself that involved the attachment of monetary value to bodies, spirit, and labor. We will explore this theme in the poems section in our discussion of “Publication – is the Auction” (F788, J709).

Furthermore, print publication fixes poems and makes them static. Karen Dandurand speculates that Dickinson’s frequent revising of her own poems, even years after they were written, suggests that she regarded poems as always “works in progress,” and it was essential for her to retain them within her control to keep them dynamic and open to change.

These reasons provide insight into Dickinson’s choice to avoid print and “publish” in her own way: binding her poems into forty fascicles, sending them off to friends and family in letters, and etching them into the corners of envelopes and paper scraps. Reworking the rules of “publication” allowed her to write, share, and preserve her work in a way that resisted the commodification of the “Human Spirit” that was so rampant in the nineteenth century’s media environment.

“Things that are Not Things”

NATIONAL HISTORY

As mentioned in the Overview, the horrors of war, death, and slavery were ever-present questions for Dickinson, just as they were for the nation at large. This week, the Springfield Republican includes extended meditations on both. A piece called “Things that are not things” focuses on the paradoxical treatment of slaves as both property and persons—a rhetorical gymnastics and perverse logic that slave owners use to argue their right to their own property and simultaneously avoid taxation:

The slaveholders refuse to be held to any definite theory on the subject, while they claim the advantages of the most opposite principles. Slaves are not property, when you talk about taxing them, or confiscating them, or in any way making them subject to the liabilities of other kinds of property; but if the government proposes to remove them from the national capital, paying a fair price for them, then they become property to all intents and purposes, and to touch them without the consent of the owners is a great outrage… The constitution does not recognize them as property… Slavery must not be allowed to shirk any of the burdens or evade any of the just consequence of the war it has instigated by mere quibbling.

A column titled “Speak kindly of the dead” attempts to make sense of death and offers instruction on how to think about the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, commenting that while “censure” might mean something for the living, it is powerless to the dead.

Fallen confederate soldiers with identifying headboards on Rose Farm. LOC, Civil War Trust.
Fallen confederate soldiers with identifying headboards on Rose Farm. LOC, Civil War Trust.

Let us speak kindly of the life that is closed… Every nature has its ennobling struggles, its inherent discords that can only be subdued to harmony by vigorous effort… The soldier went forth to do or die, and was cut down before the final charge was made and the dear-bought victory attained. Let us accept him if he fell manfully, with his face to the foe, and bear him mutely homeward upon his battered shield.

The Republican also announced an important early step in the government’s involvement in the freeing of slaves by way of an Emancipation Proclamation:

The United States Senate, on Tuesday, the 2d, adopted the joint resolve from the House, suggested by the president’s special message, offering the aid of the general government to such states as may choose to initiate emancipation.

… it is a great thing that senators representing three of [the border] states should declare for this first step towards emancipation. It required high courage, and they should have all honor for the act, for we must remember that in the South there is no such connection between loyalty to the government and hostility to slavery as exists generally among us, and the southern loyalists are by no means to be judged by our standard of opinion.

LITERARY HISTORY

In relation to this week’s focus on publication, it is important to note that the Springfield Republican frequently published poems by women on some of the same themes that interested Dickinson. The Springfield Republican for April 5, for example, includes “The Country Child” by Marian Douglas (Annie Green, 1842-1913), which invokes some of Dickinson’s favorite motifs: flowers, dew, and birds:

She seems to bring the country here—
Its birds, its flowers, its dew;
And slowly, as, amid the throng
She passes from our view,
We watch her, sadly, as we might
Some pleasant landscape fade from sight. …

So fair a flower should open with
The daisy buds at home;
Mid primrose stars, as sweet and wild,
As she will be—dear, woodland child!

It also includes a poem by Edna Proctor (1827-1923) on heroism (“Are the Heroes dead?”), while the April 12th edition includes “The Dying Wife” by Emily Gleason.

The Republican also included a literary snippet on primary school instruction that reads like a “How-To” guide on writing like Dickinson. The “Books, Authors and Art” section for this week describes “Object-Lessons,” a new form of pedagogy for the young:

The principle employed in Object-Lessons is one likely to modify the whole process of primary instruction, and the culture of which it is the basis. It employs the fresh faculties in observing, closely and accurately, and in committing to memory obvious facts, not meaningless words. It just takes the many objects with which the child is familiar, and bids him note carefully their sensible properties, their shape, size, color, texture, flavor, resemblance or difference; doing for the dullest what talent does for the gifted.

Dickinson & Higginson: A Preface

On April 5th, 1862, the Springfield Republican published a notice of the upcoming edition of the Atlantic Monthly that would prove crucial in Dickinson’s relationship to publication. In the section titled “Books, Authors and Art,” the Republican reportd:

The Atlantic Monthly for April is one of the best numbers ever issued; not of that popular periodical merely, but of magazine literature since its first inception. It is full of rich thoughts clothed in well-chosen words; the ripe fruits of culture, presented with admirable taste. Its leading article, T. W. Higginson’s Letter to a Young Contributor, ought to be read by all the would-be authors of the land, although such a circulation would surpass that of the New York Ledger or any other periodical whatever. It is a test of latent power.

Although we don’t know if Dickinson saw this notice, she may have been aware of the irony of advertising a literary essay from the Atlantic Monthly in the Springfield Republican: publication of literary writing—be it poetry or prose—was entangled in a large commercial economy.

Though she reads this essay and ultimately decides to write to Higginson, her letters are often coy and evasive. We will study them in the last two weeks of this month.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

Prospect Cottage, Kent. I. Schweitzer
Prospect Cottage, Kent. I. Schweitzer

In Dickinson’s voice

As Firmament to Fin – I said
the robin snug in wood
and great white whales in aqua
seas +singing to their brood –    

To fling a song the world among
from throat and – fearless eye
+Leaping in golden lines beyond  
ocean and the sky –

As Firmament to Fin ­– I think
I could assay – the weight
of breeze and wave that language – make
an essence rare to strike –

     +crooning     +bursting

In a contemporary voice

The answer is no from the poetry editor,
no from the national grant.
My snarky response—dies on my lips,
failures – clamor at my heart.

The answer is no from my children
hurrying into grown-up lives,
no from my husband, plugged into
his virtual toys. No from my balky knees
grousing at every mile I run, every
delirious slope I ski.
No from my sciatic nerve, achy hips,
hair-line eczema, vaginal dryness.

The answer is no
from the justice I swore to promote
at every barricade, real and
abstract, with youthful panache,
no from a world fraught
and fracked, from peace punished
and starved.

It’s time, my Soul, to transmigrate into a stone.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. Her fields are early American literature, American poetry, women’s literature, gender and cultural studies.  Her current projects include The Occom Circle, a digital edition of works by and about Samson Occom, an 18th century Mohegan Indian writer and activist, https://www.dartmouth.edu/~occom/, and a full-length documentary film entitled It’s Criminal: A Tale of Privilege and Prison, https://www.facebook.com/ItIsCriminal/, based on the courses she co-teaches in and about prison.

 

Overview

Dandurand, Karen. “Dickinson and the Public.” Dickinson and Audience. Eds. Martin Orzeck and Robert Weisbuch. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996: 255-77.

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

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

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

History and Biography

Emily Dickinson Archive http://www.edickinson.org

Dickinson, Emily. Selected Letters. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 200.

Miller, Cristianne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Springfield Republican: April 5th & April 12th, 1862

March 26-April 1, 1862: Fascicle 18

Emily Dickinson compiled Fascicle 18, consisting of 17 poems, in autumn 1862, though the poems she gathered in it were mostly written before that time. This week we focus on the complex relationships created by the poems’ proximity within the fascicle and how themes of resurrection, the afterlife, and immortality arise, through the Honors work of a student focusing specifically on Fascicle 18.

“Resurrection”
Madeline Killen

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection - Madeline Killen
Sources/Further Reading

“Resurrection”

Emily Dickinson by Jedi NoordegraafEmily Dickinson compiled Fascicle 18, consisting of 17 poems, in autumn 1862. A seasonal marker emerges in the second poem of the Fascicle’s first sheet, “I know a place where Summer strives” (F363A, J337). The poem recounts the annual battle between summer and winter when “Frost” overtakes “her Daisies” for a brief period. Although Summer continues to pour “the Dew” upon the hardened ground, it “stiffens quietly to Quartz” in the increasingly cold air. While this poem works beautifully as an illustration of the changing seasons, Dickinson also uses this subject as a metaphor for the subject of resurrection, a theme that haunts the entire fascicle. As last week’s post observed, Dickinson associated resurrection with the season of spring, and it is a major preoccupation of hers. As she will remark to Thomas Higginson in a letter dated June 9, 1866:

You mention Immortality.
That is the Flood subject. (Letter 319)

The theme of resurrection emerges mainly through the poems’ proximity to one another. This reflects Sharon Cameron’s argument in her landmark analysis of the Fascicles, Choosing Not Choosing (1992). According to Cameron, while the Fascicles do not form a classically linear or chronological narrative, the poems’ proximity within the pages of the Fascicles inevitably leads the reader to associate them with one another and, thus, understand them through that relational lens.

In the case of Fascicle 18, we can observe this process working to create several narratives. One of the most obvious is how the poet blurs the lines between a lover and a deity or higher power. Thus, a poem like “I tend my flowers for thee” (F367A, J339), which appears romantic and erotic outside of the Fascicle’s context, reads as spiritual and even cynical when it follows “I know that He exists” (F365A, J338) and “He strained my faith” (F366A, J497). For this post, though, we will focus on the themes of resurrection, the afterlife, and immortality, which in this fascicle take the form of  belief in and questions about what happens after death. 

“A Truly Independent People”

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Springfield Republican, March 25, 1862, Foreign Affairs: “The difficulty of the allied powers with Mexico may be considered as settled.”

John Bull and Brother Jonathan: This column argues that Americans have come to care nothing for England’s opinion and searches for a reason. The writer points to English ignorance of American institutions and peoples, their “sham rejection of slavery,” their lack of “sagacity,” even their ignorance of American geography, and makes this astonishing declaration:

We have never before, in our national history, been free from bondage to this opinion. Now, thank Heaven, we are. England has lost something she could not afford to lose; we have gained something we have always needed to make us a truly independent people.

“The rebel steamer ‘Nashville’ running the blockade at Beaufort, North Carolina.” Harper’s Weekly, April 5, 1862, page 209 (illustration).

It is worth remembering, as was noted in last week's post, that Lieutenant Colonel Clark, who commanded the 21st Massachusetts regiment, reported that Frazar Stearns was killed by “a ball from an English rifle. ” In this week’s Hampshire Gazette, a description of the battle of New Berne confirmed the fact that England was arming the Confederacy:

A large quantity of small arms, many of them new English rifles, were thrown away in their [the rebels’] flight. These with boxes of English caps found upon the ground, were, no doubt, late importations by the Nashville, which recently ran the blockade at Beaufort. … Over thirty dead horses lay behind the breastworks, and here and there the bodies of the rebel dead in the ditches on the field. The appearance of so many dead and mangled human beings in every stage of mutilation, was a sickening sight, and one which few would wish to behold a second time.

NATIONAL NEWS

Springfield Republican, Saturday March 29, Review of the Week: Progress of the War. “The rebels, having abandoned their boasted Gibraltars, are now talking largely about making Thermopylaes. They undertook one near Winchester, Virginia, the other day, but Gen. Shields spoiled it for them, and after a most disastrous defeat, they fled to seek a new stand-point further in the heart of Virginia.”

 Shields at the Battle of Winchester, VA.  Currier & Ives, c1862. Gen. Shields at the Battle of Winchester, VA. Currier & Ives, c1862.[/caption]

The General Situation: “The rebels are suspected of playing false in the matter of exchanging prisoners.”

Springfield Republican: Life in Washington; Seen through New Spectacles. From our Special Correspondent: “Spring hovers not very far up in the sunny azure. … Nature may allure me to say that even Washington is fair.”

Also, from the Republican, the army rouses out of its winter lethargy. It is worthwhile to compare this description with the obsequies of Frazar Stearns in Amherst:

With shouts of joy which seem to rend the very sky, they receive their orders to march. With hilarious cries they rush on to death or victory. And these are not the men, whose fall on the battle field will win them glorious fames, funeral pageants, and immortal eulogies. They know that if they are wounded, strangers will tend them, while they languish in dreary hospitals; that if they die in battle, strangers will lay them in their unrecorded graves, if haply they do not fall like cattle in their trenches. These are our mercenaries.

How Shall we Deal with Slavery?

It is true that slavery is a purely state institution; the constitution neither sustains nor prohibits it, but simply recognizes its existence in the states. But the struggle of the southern leaders has been to make it a national institution, and to use the power and resources of the Union for its protection and extension, and they have made war upon the Union because they say that they had forever lost the power to prostitute the general government to the interests of their barbarous institution. Every legal and constitutional measure by which slavery can be limited and checked ought therefore to receive popular support, and will.

Springfield Republican printed “Night-Song in Lent” by R. Storrs Willis (1819-1900), an American composer, mainly of hymn music, and a long column on the recent popularity of photo albums. Then, this short notice came at the very bottom of the last column on page 6:

Fanny Fern
Fanny Fern (Sara Willis, 1811 – 1872), a popular columnist and writer

Fanny Fern” has separated from her husband, Parton, on the ground of alleged misuse, not only on his part but that of one of his relatives.”

“A Brother Lost”

This week, the Dickinsons still mourn the death of Frazar Stearns.

Hampshire Gazette for March 25 ran a story about “The Capture of Newbern” that included a letter by “Lieut. Dwight of this town,” written to his brother, in which he says of the battle:

It is impossible for me to give you any description of the fight in writing … The fog was very thick and the smoke hung to the ground … We heard cheering and knew that a charge was being made, but there was no cessation of the firing and it was understood that the enemy held their position. This charge was made by the 21st Mass., 3 companies, and they got inside but were driven out, and their loss was very great. Adjutant Stearns of the 21st was killed. He is the son of President Stearns of Amherst College.

The Gazette also included a long obituary for Stearns that began:

The death of this young man has detracted much from the joy with which the victory would otherwise have been hailed by our people. … the remains of the student soldier were followed to the tomb by all the faculty and students of the college, and many of the town’s people, all of whom mourned as for a brother lost.

But change is afoot. April will be a momentous month for Emily Dickinson.

Spring Crocus
Crocus in spring.

Read this Week's Poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Madeline Killen

 

Starting in middle school and ending when I came to college, I would spend hours every day baking in the sun on poorly maintained tennis courts, perfecting my serve and topspin. Any one of my coaches’ rolling baskets of fuzzy yellow balls would inevitably contain a tiny torture device called a “reaction ball.” I bet many high school athletes would know exactly what I’m referring to: a tiny rubber device that looked like a bouncy ball with other bouncy ball halves growing out of it at odd angles. Coach would bounce it, I’d go running after it in whichever completely unpredictable direction it opted to fly off. Catch it in the air, I’m still in the game; catch it after a bounce, and I’d have push-ups or burpees or sprints as punishment. For a while, I thought that quitting tennis in college meant I’d left the unpredictable demands of the reaction ball far behind me. But that was before I started writing a senior honors thesis on Dickinson’s Fascicle 18.

Fascicle 18 a beautiful reaction ball of themes and meanings, hopping away from me in some shocking new direction the moment I begin to think I’ve gotten a grip on it. I found my way to the fascicle because of a close reading assignment I completed my junior winter in Professor Schweitzer’s “The New Emily Dickinson” course on its fourth poem, “I know that He exists.” The year of the poem’s composition —1862, at the peak of Dickinson’s “white heat” of creativity and the Civil War — and its use of words like “Ambush,” “piercing,” and “Death” led me in the direction of war. I read the poem as a call to an absent God to intervene in the bloody tragedy of the Civil War.

Reaction Ball
Reaction Ball

Based on this reading, I submitted my thesis proposal, positing that I would do an analysis of the fascicle through the lens of war and religion. I quickly realized, however, that to boil a fascicle down to two central themes is to do Dickinson a great injustice — so for the past few months, I’ve chased this fascicle down countless side alleys and back roads, finding myself face-to-face with themes as quintessentially Dickinson as cyclical time, immortality, death, and poetry itself and as surprising as miscarriages, abortions, and trauma.

In Fascicle 18, it’s exactly Dickinson’s noncommittal word play — choosing not to choose single definitions — that creates this reaction ball effect. In “I know that He exists,” “Bliss” is personified; she must “Earn her own surprise.” Later in the fascicle, in “Is Bliss then, such Abyss,” Bliss is an object: “sold just once / The Patent lost / None buy it any more —.”  On sheet five, the speaker’s “Reward for Being, was This — / My premium — My Bliss —.” Within the fascicle context, this single word takes on three different meanings but also inevitably carries the context and definition that it has elsewhere in the fascicle. We hold all three Blisses in our mind at one time when we read Fascicle 18, incapable of ignoring the trace of Dickinson’s variants and altering the impression of the entire poem and fascicle.

Bio: Madeline is a member of the Dartmouth class of 2018. An English major and an Italian minor, she took the "The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn" course taught by Ivy Schweitzer in winter 2017.  This course inspired her English honors thesis, which focused on Dickinson's Fascicle 18. A chapter of this thesis, titled “The Landscape of Bliss,” won the prize for the best undergraduate research essay from the Emily Dickinson International Society in 2018.

Further Reading

Kirby, Joan. "Death and Immortality." Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 160-178.

Sources

History
Hampshire Gazette,  March 25, 1862.

Springfield Republican,  March 29, 1862

Biography
The Hampshire Gazette, March 25, 1862

 

March 12-18, 1862: Death of Frazar Stearns

This week we focus on the death in battle of Frazar Stearns, which occurred on March 14, 1862 at the Battle of New Bern, in North Carolina. Stearns was member of the Amherst College Class of 1863 and a close friend of Austin Dickinson, Dickinson’s brother. Dickinson was deeply touched by his death, as we see in the poems for this week, and this may have propelled her to consider publication.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Samantha Bryant
Sources

“A Christian Martyr”

This week we focus on the death of Frazar Stearns, which occurred on March 14, 1862 at the Battle of New Bern in North Carolina.

Frazar Stearns. Amherst College Collections

Stearns was a member of the Amherst College Class of 1863 and the son of Reverend William Stearns, the fourth and current president of Amherst College.

Reverend William Stearns.

He was one of a group of Amherst students who was encouraged to sign up for service by their popular chemistry professor, William Smith Clark of the Class of 1848. Clark became an officer in the 21st Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and appointed Stearns as his adjutant.

William Smith Clark.

According to historian Polly Longsworth, Stearns was not the only person from Amherst to perish at New Bern. But his youth, idealism, and prominent family helped to cast Stearns as a symbol of the terrible toll of the war. Following the Union Army’s victory at New Bern, General Burnside, the commanding officer, ordered that the first Confederate cannon taken during the battle be sent to Amherst as a memorial to young Stearns. The College’s Trustees ordered this cannon preserved with a plaque honoring Stearns and other casualties of the battle

as a monument of the heroism of those who have gone before them, and of the precious blood that has been spilled in suppressing this mad rebellion.

Stearns was eulogized, praised in state proclamations, and honored with a funeral that had an attendance rivaling the popular annual Amherst College Commencement.

Important for this project is that Stearns was a close friend of Austin Dickinson, Dickinson’s brother. His death hit very close to home in the Dickinson household. Dickinson wrote four letters that mention Frazar Stearns, which we will discuss below. She might have attended the ceremony, in which the 21st Regiment gave the Confederate cannon to Amherst College, at which her father presided. Scholars also speculate that this particular death might have propelled Dickinson into contacting Thomas Wentworth Higginson about her poetry and possible publication, which happened in in mid-April, the following month. There is much to explore about it.

“The meeting of ‘Marine Monsters’”

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Springfield Republican, March 15, 1862– Foreign Affairs: “The news from over the water has ceased to have a particular interest in this country, with the exception of the designs of the allies on Mexico.”

NATIONAL NEWS

Although we focus on the Battle of New Bern this week, the news of it had not yet appeared in the papers. Rather, the Republican was full of news of the “extraordinary naval battle of Norfolk,” Virginia, later known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, which occurred on March 9. For the first time, two iron-clad ships clashed: the CSS Virginia (originally named the Merrimack), secretly re-commissioned by the Confederacy,  and the smaller, though more maneuverable Monitor, retaliating for the Union.

Battle of Hampton Roads

There is only a short notice of “The Burnside Expedition … starting on a secret expedition to the mainland, the object of which is not revealed.”

Here is a summary of what happened at New Bern, with more details related to Stearns' role in the Biography section: Troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside moved into the North Carolina mainland, targeting New Bern, which had served as the capital of the North Carolina colonial government and then briefly as the state capital. On March 14, the 21st Massachusetts Regiment assaulted a brickyard and makeshift Confederate battery, allowing Union forces to take New Bern, which remained in Union control until the end of the war. New Bern proved to be an important victory for the Union because of the large amount of arms and equipment captured, and because it compromised the enemy’s supply lines. But it was costly: the 21st lost 19 men during the battle.

“Plan of the Battle of Newberne.” Map by Robert Knox Sneden, 1832-1918. The original is at the Virginia Historical Society.

“Let us love better”

Frazar Stearns was born on 21 June 1840 and died on 14 March 1862; he was 21 years old.

Frazar Stearns. Image: Amherst College

His family was descended from some of the earliest settlers in New England: Thomas Dudley, governor of the Mass Bay Colony and father of the poet Anne Bradstreet, and Captain Edward Johnson, who both came over from England with John Winthrop in 1630.

On March 9, 1862, Stearns wrote to his mother,

We are going to-morrow morning at daylight somewhere, — where, exactly, I don't know… God only knows what a day may bring forth. He only can tell what may happen to me on the morrow; always remember that any hour or any moment may bring you news that I am killed or dangerously wounded. If either, then God’s will be done; and I hope I may always be prepared for any issue.
These are horrible times, when every man’s hand is against his neighbor. But I have hope. Let the North pray more; let them give the glory to God and not to man, and these days which are rolling by shall be full of glorious victories, which are soon, very soon, to bring on peace.

This letter reached the family on March 18th carried by a wounded private in Stearns' regiment.

On the eve of the battle, Stearns was still recovering from a wound he took at the battle of Roanoke on February 7, 1862. When the Union and Confederate forces engaged at New Bern, it became clear that the Confederates had left an unguarded gap in a wall that led to a strategic brickyard. Lieutenant Colonel William Clark volunteered his regiment to surge through the gap with bayonets and with muskets that were unreliable because many had gotten wet in the previous night’s rain. Furthermore, they were charging into superior fire. In the first surge on the brickyard, Stearns was hit just as the men began to head for the gap.

Lieutenant Colonel Clark wrote of the battle:

[T]he noblest of us all, my brave, efficient, faithful adjutant, First Lieutenant F. A. Stearns, of Company I, fell mortally wounded… As he was cheering on the men to charge upon the enemy across the railroad, he was struck by a ball from an English rifle… He lived about two hours and a half, though nearly unconscious from the loss of blood, and died without a struggle a little before noon.

When the telegram with this news arrived in Amherst on March 19th, the town was shocked and deeply affected. The funeral occurred on March 22. In one of her letters, discussed below, Dickinson gives a detailed description of it. Barton Levi St. Armand believes that “I felt a funeral in my brain”(F340A, J280)  may be Dickinson’s psychological response to Stearns’ funeral. Quickly thereafter, Stearns’ father published a book titled Adjutant Stearns based on his son’s letters from the front, William Clark’s accounts, and including the eulogies from the funeral and praises from people who did not even know Stearns. From this point onward, he became a symbol, almost the image of a Christian martyr.

The response in the Dickinson family was profound grief. Austin Dickinson was a close friend of Stearns.

William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library

He would be drafted in May 1864 and, along with four other Dickinson men who were also drafted, would hire a substitute at the price of $500 to take his place. This was customary in the upper classes, but the death of his close friend probably influenced his decision. The death was also deeply personal for Emily Dickinson, who knew Stearns and his family.

Dickinson mentions Stearns first in a letter dated December 31, 1861  addressed to her cousin Louise Norcross. In it, she refers to the death of another local boy, Sylvester Adams, communicated through a telegram signed “by Frazer Stearns” to a mother who has lost both her boys to the war. “Mrs. Adams herself has not risen from bed since then,” Dickinson reports and adds,

Frazer Stearns is just leaving Annapolis. His father has gone to see him to-day. I hope that ruddy face won’t be brought home frozen (L245).

But he is “brought home frozen.” In a letter to both Norcross cousins, Dickinson writes of Frazar’s death, and  the minute details she recounts indicate just how  intensely she felt this particular death:

You have done more for me– ‘tis the least that I can do, to tell you of brave Frazer –“killed at Newbern,” darlings. His big heart shot away by a “minie ball.”
I had read of those – I didn’t think that Frazer would carry one to Eden with him. Just as he fell, in his soldier’s cap, with his sword at his side, Frazer rode through Amherst. Classmates to the right of him, and classmates to the left of him, to guard his narrow face! He fell by the side of Professor Clark, his superior officer – lived ten minutes in a soldier’s arms, asked twice for water – murmured just, “My God!” and passed! Sanderson, his classmate, made a box of boards in the night, put the brave boy in, covered with a blanket, rowed six miles to reach the boat,– so poor Frazer came. They tell that Colonel Clark cried like a little child when he missed his pet, and could hardly resume his post. They loved each other very much. Nobody here could look on Frazer – not even his father. The doctors would not allow it.
The bed on which he came was enclosed in a large casket shut entirely, and covered from head to foot with the sweetest flowers. He went to sleep from the village church. Crowds came to tell him good night, choirs sang to him, pastors told how brave he was – early-soldier heart. And the family bowed their heads, as the reeds the wind shakes.
So our part in Frazer is done, but you must come next summer, and we will mind ourselves of this young crusader – too brave that he could fear to die. We will play his tunes – maybe he can hear them; we will try to comfort his broken-hearted Ella, who, as the clergyman said, “gave him peculiar confidence.” …. Austin is stunned completely. Let us love better, children, it’s the most that’s left to do. (L255)

Is there an echo of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) in Dickinson’s description of Stearns riding through Amherst with his classmates on either side? Tennyson wrote,

Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them (ll. 18-20).

And does this echo give us a glimpse of Dickinson’s attitude towards this death, famously expressed by Tennyson:

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die (ll. 14-15).

In another letter at this time to Samuel Bowles, Dickinson writes again of this disturbing death. Her comments are often quoted as referring to her brother’s grief, but editor Thomas Johnson notes that,

This letter, which apparently enclosed another letter for Bowles to forward to somebody, uses Austin’s name throughout as a cover (399).

Although Dickinson refers to herself in the third person in the paragraph just before the one that mentions Stearns, the passage about Austin’s reaction can also be read as her own, especially as the imagery she uses makes it into her poetry about this event:

Austin is chilled – by Frazer’s murder– he says ­– his brain keeps saying over “Frazer is killed” – “Frazer is killed,” ­ just as Father told it – to Him. Two or three words of lead – that dropped so deep, they keep weighing –
Tell Austin – how to get over them! (L256)

In another letter to Bowles, Dickinson includes the poem “Victory comes late” (F195, J690), discussed in this week’s poems, which some see as her elegy for Frazar Stearns. Bowles wrote to Austin and Sue

 … and then the news from Newbern took away all the remaining life. I did not care for victory, for anything now. (Letters, 400)

Finally, in mid-July, 1871, Dickinson wrote to Louise Norcross:

“Oh! Cruel Paradise! We have a chime of bells given for brave Frazer. You’ll stop and hear them, won’t you?
“We conquered, but Bozzaris fell.” That sentence always chokes me (L362).

The town hung the bells memorializing Frazar Stearns on July 4, 1871. The reference, according to Johnson, is to a widely popular ballad, “Marco Bozzaris” by Fitz-Greene Halleck, about a general and hero of the Greek War of Independence, first published in 1825. The line Dickinson paraphrases reads:

They conquered ­ – but Bozzaris fell.

The rich digital source, “‘A Nosegay to Take to Battle’: The Civil War Wounding of Emily Dickinson,” edited by Marta Werner, also makes a provocative connection between the effect of Stearns’ death and Dickinson’s attitude towards her writing and her decision to contact Thomas Wentworth Higginson after she read his essay, “A Letter to a Young Contributor,” in the April 15th Atlantic Monthly. Werner speculates:

Indeed, it is very likely that the death of Frazar Stearns is also an impetus for her introductory letter to this prominent literary and war figure, particularly as Higginson's claim that nothing will make one immortal — not politics, not distinction in war — must have struck a chord following the poignant gun ceremony of April 14 [at which the Confederate cannon from New Bern was delivered to Amherst College].

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Samantha Bryant

I came to Emily Dickinson in elementary school. My teacher had assigned us, as a handwriting project, the neat copying of classic poems, which we were then allowed to illustrate and gather in a folder made out of wallpaper scraps. Most of us probably didn’t really absorb the poetry—the old-fashioned diction and difficult vocabulary made understanding the verses challenging for young readers—but I remember the loving care I took in copying the poems I chose, my feeling that, even if I didn’t really understand exactly what was being said, they were speaking some dark and secret place in my heart. These poems felt magic to me, like spells or maybe curses.

One of my selections was “Because I could not stop for Death” (F479), which might seem a bleak selection for such a young poetry reader. Despite my youth and inexperience with death, I was a serious minded little girl, with a religious bent, trying hard to reconcile my feelings of right and wrong with the conflicting messages I was hearing about God and the afterlife. I was drawn in by the image of a small, serious girl (much like myself) sitting in a carriage with Death himself, which in my mind looked like a traditional grim reaper, calmly riding off into the sunset.

As I grew up and grew older, Emily’s poetry (I feel I’ve known her all my life, so I think of her by her first name) always remained a touchstone in my life. It is still so today, especially when I am going through rough times full of turbulent and conflicting emotions. Her work speaks my heart especially well when she writes of grief.

In the selections for this post, I taste personal grief drizzled over a bitter cake of wider suffering. It is hard enough to lose someone beloved, but the experience is all the more devastating when the loss comes of violence or in war that seems senseless, especially to those watching from afar. Reading these poems opens an ache deep within, an echo of the complicated tangle of emotions surrounding loss.

There is such daring challenge and visceral hurt in a line like “Was God so economical?” Economy seems a petty thing, a concern for householders, not for all-powerful God, but the God in “Victory comes late” has set the table so high that we can’t reach it, though He has promised to care for us. In grief, so many of us experience anger and a feeling of having been betrayed or cheated, like sparrows left to starve.

As my students say, “I know these feels.” I know too, the feeling of tragedy redoubled, when grief comes to someone who has already been struck by loss too many times and the desire for answers. I, too, have wanted to know whether someone suffered, or what they thought about at the end, or if they were afraid.

All the stages and phases of grief, all the terrible maelstrom of mixed emotions, all the pain and hope and fear that surround death come through in these poems and remind me once more why there’s no one like Emily to grieve with when loss knocks on your door.

Bio: Samantha Bryant is a middle school Spanish teacher by day, and escapes into superhero fiction by night. She is the author of the Menopausal Superheroes series (Going Through the Change, Change of Life, and Face the Change) and other feminist-leaning speculative fiction. She’s also a lifelong poetry enthusiast, old movie buff, and connoisseur of home baked cookies. You can learn more about Samantha and her work at her website and blog or by following her on Twitter.

Sources
  • Amherst College,” Amherst Historic, accessed March 12, 2018.
  • Dakin, M. R. “Your Classmate and Friend.The Consecrated Eminence: The Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College.
  • Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
  • Emily Dickinson and the Civil War.” Emily Dickinson Museum.
  • Murray, Aife. Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2009, 165-66.
  • Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
  • St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 104-115.
  • Stearns, William.  Adjutant Stearns. Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1862. Ebook, 100 ff.
  • Longsworth, Polly. “Brave Among the Bravest,” Passages of Time: Narratives in the History of Amherst College, ed. Douglas C. Wilson. Amherst: Amherst College Press. 2007.
  • Sweet, William. A Cannon for the Confederacy: The Legacy of Frazar Stearns
  • https://www.amherst.edu/news/news_releases/2012/03/node/384752
  • Werner, Marta, ed. A Nosegay to Take to Battle’: The Civil War Wounding of Emily Dickinson.

Websites related to the Battle of New Bern (1862):

 

February 19-25, 1862: Choosing

Dickinson lived in an era where women had agency in limited realms and were often overseen by men. During 1862, as she withdrew more and more from activities outside her home and even within it, Dickinson contrived a mental sphere of empowerment for herself by choosing carefully how to live her life and who to allow in it. This theme of “selecting” and “choosing,” both in Dickinson’s life and writing, guides our post this week.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Charif Shanahan
Sources

“and I choose…”

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Still ringing in our ears are the last words from the last poem in last week’s post:

“With Will to choose,
Or to reject, and I choose, just a crown.”

The flood of power that comes with embracing one’s agency, often associated in Dickinson’s poems with images of royalty, has the speaker feeling “adequate,” becoming “erect,” and “crowing” like a rooster over his roost—that has to warm any feminist’s heart. And because there is so much celebration in the news this week in 1862 on account of a string of Northern victories, we want to continue the mood of exultation by exploring the theme of “choosing.”

It is not clear how much choice women of Dickinson’s time, place and class could exercise in their lives. Within certain realms—the domestic sphere, emotional life, religion—women of this class had scope for agency, but always granted and surveilled by men. Dickinson’s father was notoriously controlling and supervisory, but so were the gossiping tongues of relatives and neighbors in the small town of Amherst.

Dickinson's room with three portraits
Dickinson's room 

During this year, as she withdrew more and more from activities outside her home and even within it, Dickinson contrived a mental sphere of empowerment for herself by choosing carefully how to live her life and who to allow in it. Her niece Martha, Susan Dickinson’s daughter, recalls a childhood memory of entering Dickinson’s upstairs bedroom with her, and tells how her aunt closed the door behind them, mimed the act of turning a key in the lock and said: “It's just a turn–and freedom, Matty!”

We also wanted an excuse to organize a group of poems around the incomparable poem, “The Soul selects her own Society.” When a version of the poem was published in the first collection of 1890, the editors Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson gave it the title “Exclusion.” While being “exclusive” sounds discriminating, as we know Dickinson was about people and silly social conventions, that word doesn’t capture the exhilaration of actively “selecting” and “choosing.” We want to explore the differences between s/electing and being s/elected; choosing and being chosen. And in the poems section, we will explore Sharon Cameron’s provocative phrase and title for her book describing Dickinson’s governing method and ethos in her fascicles, “Choosing not Choosing.”

Not that all choosing in Dickinson’s work or life was the occasion for celebration. There is exclusion in “The Soul selects her own society” and it has serious, even painful consequences. In another poem Franklin dates to late 1863, “Renunciation is a piercing virtue” (F782A, J745), the speaker finds that:

Renunciation – is the Choosing
Against itself –
Itself to justify
Unto itself

That is, sometimes the exhilaration of exercising choice is dampened by what one decides to choose. In this passage, one gives up a present joy “for an expectation.” Is it worth it?

“Who is she?

NATIONAL

From the Springfield Republican for Saturday February 22, 1862

Review of Week: Progress of the War: “This has been a week of triumph and exultation, unbroken by a single disaster. The series of victories continues and increases in value. The victories at Fort Henry and Roanoke Island have been followed by the capture of Fort Donelson, with fifteen thousand prisoners, and all their arms and supplies, while Price has ignominiously fled into Arkansas and his army is being captured piecemeal or dispersed.”

Major-General Sterling Price (1809-1867) Credit: Civil War Trust

Home Matters: “The deep interest felt in the war has taken a new start and led to extensive rejoicings over the federal victories, which will culminate in this city in public services and a splendid illumination on Saturday, the 130th anniversary of the natal day of the father of the country. His soul need not now be ashamed of his loyal children.”

Religious Intelligence: Church and Ministry. “A revival has been going on in the Northampton Methodist church, for five or six weeks past … and as a result some twenty-three persons have professed a hope in Christ.”

Opinions and Movements: “A Massachusetts soldier on the upper Potomac, recently went to hear a hardshell Presbyterian slaveholder preach, and gives the following graphic account of his style:”

Like most men of his profession who live in open violation of the moral precepts of Christ, he is a perfect tiger in doctrines. … There was not one kindly, charitable word in the whole sermon. I can easily see how such a man–so positive where modest men utter their convictions with some sort of deference to the opinions of other men, and where the great majority of hearers have very poorly defined views–should be a very effective preacher. It is in religion much as in medicine–the mass of men concern themselves so little about it that the quack who assumes the most and speaks most positively usually carries the day.

A Visitor at Washington “Who is She?” Correspondence of the Republican.

The story is told of a certain Caliph … that he was in the habit of going about incog. to observe the state of affairs in his capital, and whenever he saw any disturbance, or heard of any trouble or quarrel, his one question always was, “Who is she?”– thereby proving his acuteness and knowledge of the world. … Perhaps, if we were Caliphs, we might arrive at the truth as to the part woman has taken in this wild and wicked rebellion; as it is, our information is partial, but startling. Beyond the line of Mason and Dixon, (is that why it is called Dixie?) they were early aroused, and were stirring up their sons and brothers, husbands and lovers, to resist this dreadful oppression. Poor dears, they did not stop to reason–women never do; they jump at conclusions, and it is but justice to say that their impulses are often right … But in this case … nothing that woman has done since Eve ate the fruit (I never did believe it was an apple) has wrought such mischief to the country.

The writer goes on to castigate the courage of the Southern women who “have quilted quinine into their skirts, and carried arms in their trunks” to support their fighting men and exclaims:

How they have taken advantage of our proverbial national courtesy to women.” But in the next breath, he recounts: “I know a man who applied for a certain post [in Washington] and he was well fitted for it, and had some claim. But, the highest lady in the land (who is she?) said, “Tell him he cannot have it, I have promised it elsewhere;” and she carried her point. It is certain we are indebted to the same influence for some very curious appointments, more curious than suitable.

We will see many more criticisms of Mrs. Lincoln from this source in the coming weeks.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)

Books, Authors and Art. Notes a new edition of the popular author Bayard Taylor, and recommends a passage from “A Young Author’s Life in London,” which is relevant to Dickinson’s upcoming correspondences with Higgingson:

O, the dreams we dream! O, the poems we write! Kind are the hands that hold us back from rushing into print; tender the words which pronounce such harsh judgments upon our works. For a year, we proudly curse the stupidity of our advisers; forever afterwards we bless them as benefactors. Reader, that knoweth, peradventure, how many bad poems I have published, little dreamest thou how many worse ones a kind fate has saved me from offering thee.

The article concludes: “The reader will perhaps be reminded of those playful lines of Lowell’s:

While you were thinking yourself to be pitied,
Just think how much harder your teeth you’d have gritted,
It ‘twere not for the dullness I’ve kindly omitted.

Original Poetry: Printed “February” a long poem in tetrameter quatrains rhyming abab about the coming spring as a metaphor for the peace of summer longed for by the nation. [We found this in a volume titled A Quiet Life and Other Poems by EDR, or Elizabeth Dickinson Rice Biancardi 1833-1885, author of At home in Italy, NY: Houghton Mifflin and Co, 1884, but no more information on her.] “The Photograph Album,” in the same form, about the fear of loss of a loved one. “Along the Lines” uses a more rousing ballad measure to evoke the men fighting the rebellion, and “My Love,” a humorous poem in common meter of 8 line stanzas describing the speaker’s passion for an ill-favored man [which gets reprinted in the Labor Digest and other books about workingmen]:

My love, dear man, turns in his toes,
My love is tangle-kneed,
Cross-eyed, left-handed, hair and beard
In hue are disagreed.
He has no soft and winning voice,
No single charm has he.
And yet, this awkward, ugly man
Is all the world to me.

In Selected Miscellany: Two poems: “Into the Darkness” by Mary Forest, in iambic tetrameter quatrains with variable rhyming, about the inevitability of death. “The Compass” by S. D. Robbins, iambic pentameter quatrains rhyming abab about God as the speaker’s moral index.

Also, from Gail Hamilton, “The Time to Make Love to a Woman”– after she has been jilted by another; “The Army of the English Commonwealth” by John Milton, who, he claims, was exemplary for reading scripture and hearing sermons in their off-hours; “The Women of a Nation” by Alexis de Tocqueville, who, though he argues that women are sometimes a positive and redeeming influence on men, most often are negative influences because “the grand notion of public duty was entirely absent” from their minds. “Stick to your Opinions” by John S. Hart, “Baby Talk” a complaint about the degeneration of the language from Vanity Fair.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. c. 1879 (1809-1894)

Hampshire Gazette for February 25, 1862, publishes on its first page from the Atlantic for March, “Voyage of the Good Ship Union” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, with 8 line stanza of two quatrains of ballad measure rhyming ababcdcd and ending,

One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, / One Nation, evermore!

Besides coverage of the war they print a column on “A Royal Courtship,” about the late Prince Albert’s courtship of Queen Victoria, and “A Few Reflections on Boys” about how to raise honorable men.

INTERNATIONAL

From the Springfield Republican, February 22, 1862: “In the January number of the Westminster Review is an interesting article on the Religious Heresies of the Working Classes of England. In speaking of the atheism of a certain class of unbelievers, it is said that they carry their opposition to theism so far that their organs strike out the word ‘God’ in all poetry they quote. Thus, the ‘National Reformer,’ having occasion to quote, to serve its own purpose, Bryant’s celebrated stanza, beginning–

Truth crushed to earth will rise again,
The eternal years of God are hers

[from William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) The Battle-Field,” ll. 33-34, which was made into a hymn. The first, famous line was quoted by M. L. King and gave the title to an album by the hip hop group House of Pain] alters the second line in this way,

Surely eternal years are hers.

In the minds of these bigots of atheism, Truth may be eternal, but God cannot be permitted to have even a momentary poetical existence.”

“Joyful Victory”

On February 17, the Springfield Republican reported that Edward Dickinson had been re-elected president of the Amherst, Belchertown and Palmer railroad for the current year. See Dickinson's poem about the railroad, “I like to see it lap the miles” (F383A, J585), written in 1862.

On February 20 the town of Amherst rang the bells to celebrate the news of the capture of Fort Donelson.

The stars and stripes were unfurled from the tower of the chapel and cheer on cheer rose from College hill.

And on February 22, a short notice in the news from Amherst, which presages the tragedy to come:

We have just ascertained that the son of President Stearns [of Amherst College 1854-187], engaged in the battle of Roanoke as Adjutant, was slightly wounded on the head. So we feel quite glorious over our share in the joyful victory.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Charif Shanahan

Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

To spend a life
In choice –
Not in having chosen, but in
Choosing –

A choice of its own
I suppose –
A railway paved as it goes –

The figs –
Ripe and dropping
From the encumbered boughs –
Before reach –

O Natural World
To commit – to be –
O to be certain so –

I was recently in Amherst for the first time and took the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home. Unfortunately, the house was closed for the winter months, though I did have the chance to walk around and feel the energy of the estate. While there I recalled the details of a visit to Dickinson’s house that the great poet Jorie Graham had shared in an interview for Slate. Graham, pregnant with a child and at something of a crossroads in her life, was seeking guidance, direction from outside herself about how to proceed—perhaps from Dickinson’s spirit itself, still so alive in that small town it is almost tangible. During her visit, Graham noticed, on or near the poet’s grave, a ladybug, which then flew up and landed on her hand for a moment before flying in the direction of The Homestead. Graham followed the ladybug to Dickinson’s house, which was closed—for the winter season, as it was for me, or perhaps for renovations; I can’t recall the details. I do recall that Graham managed to convince the attendant to let her enter not only the house, but Emily’s upstairs bedroom where, incredibly, Graham found, next to Emily’s impossibly narrow desk, a small wooden crib—a sign to continue on the path of making poems in the face of imminent motherhood.

It’s likely I’m misremembering some details of Graham’s story—I looked for the interview in the Slate archives, but was unable to find it—though the story, as it exists in my memory, has stayed with me since I first encountered it years ago as an MFA candidate in New York City: I was struck that a poet as visionary and accomplished as Graham might, like myself and so many of the young poets I knew then personally, question how, or whether at all, to continue on a path of making poems. Given the demands of the world that might take us away from the craft, or simply given the other commitments one could choose to make in this life—some more clearly mapped, with fewer obstacles and less resistance, than a life of writing poems—I was encouraged to discern that the doubt, the questioning might simply be a part of the path that lies before any artist—of any age, background, experience, or life stage. As sentimental as it sounds, I think of the story—and of poetry—whenever I see a ladybug.

Years after first hearing Graham’s story, with a book of my own now in the world, I am grateful for the opportunity to re-read Dickinson’s poems “of choosing”—in her case, not only her art, but her reclusive life—and to be reminded of the many ways to be a poet in the world and of the responsibility we share to reflect the world back to itself, however we can.

At a time when so many of us carry a sense of helplessness and dread in the face of unimaginable greed, rampant and institutionally-sponsored violence, and the dehumanization of our brothers and sisters all around the world, I am “Held fast … By my own Choice” to engage in exactly the kind of truth-telling work that poetry allows. I sit in the Ferry Building of downtown San Francisco, looking into the open expanse above the Bay, on the opposite side of our “ample nation”—itself at a kind of crossroads and in need of the compassion and action that poetry can offer and inspire in us—and think of Dickinson at her small desk writing these lines:

A still – Volcano – Life -
That flickered in the night -
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight -

 

Bio: Charif Shanahan is the author of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing (SIU Press, 2017), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. His poems appear in New Republic, New York Times Magazine, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. Called a "vital and profound new voice" by Publishers Weekly, Shanahan is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, Cave Canem Foundation, the Frost Place, the Fulbright Program/IIE, Millay Colony for the Arts, Starworks Foundation, and Stanford University, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry. Originally from the Bronx, he lives in San Francisco.

Sources

History
Hampshire Gazette, 
February 25, 1862
Springfield Republican, February 22, 1862

 

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

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

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

War, Death, and Influence

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

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

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Harriet Prescott Spofford

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

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

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

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Rose Terry Cooke

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

We leave it to you to decide whether Dickinson was a secret disciple of the Azarian School, which, according to Cody, was characterized by intoxication and ravishment 

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

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

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

The protagonists in Azarian works are almost always heroines, and matters of the soul and ecstasy are important topics. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a big fan, being a friend and mentor of Spofford and Cooke as well as Dickinson, writing a supportive review of Spofford’s novel Azarian, and mentioning her to Dickinson in at least one letter. See L261 in which Dickinson responded,

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

“War As An Educator”

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

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

 
 

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

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

LOCAL NEWS

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

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

 

“The Value of a Close Friend”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Victoria Corwin

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

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

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


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

the letting go.

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

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

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

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

Sources

Overview

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

History

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

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

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

Biography

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