January 1-7, 1862: Poems on the Civil War

On Choosing the Poems

The poems for this week vary in date from late 1861 to early 1863. Since we cannot determine the exact dates of the composition of poems, we feel justified in taking some latitude about Dickinson’s writing on such an important subject. We also want to illustrate how fully Dickinson engages with the American Civil War, continuously grappling with the moral questions it posed in relation to other pervasive Dickinsonian themes – death, sacrifice, fear, faith, immortality. During this period, she never quite escapes the Civil War, because of the lasting effects it had on her family, community, ethics, politics, and world view.

Although the war was an ever-present backdrop, Dickinson wrote few poems directly about it, opting instead for natural metaphors, slanting imagery, or close comparisons and implications. Faith Barrett argues that

Dickinson uses her Civil War poems to test out opposing ideological positions, sometimes skeptically questioning wartime ideologies and sometimes endorsing them. … Dickinson finds extraordinary imaginative freedom in poetry, with the possibilities it offers for equivocation, ambivalence, and reversal.

The poems selected below illustrate these qualities. We will return to this theme in later posts.

Other Civil War poems not dated to circa 1862: 

Back to the blog for Jan 1-7, 1862

Sources

Barrett, Faith. “Slavery and the Civil War.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 206-15, 207.